Washington, Feb 22 : They might be small in size, but squirrels are clever and smart when it comes to tricking and deception, according to a new study.
The study, by biologists at Wilkes University, showed how eastern grey squirrels engage in behavioural, and perhaps even tactical, deception.
The researchers said that their findings are the first to prove that any rodent deceives.
Squirrels deceive to protect their stashes of nuts and acorns, which they store, or cache, for later consumption. While storing food, they first dig a shallow pit with their front paws. The hard-working squirrels then push the item into the base of the pit "often with several thrusts of the entire body," finally dragging their paws over the site to cover it with soil and debris.
However, scientists pointed that the squirrels would deceive other squirrels and endure the whole storage ceremony without even dropping food into the holes.
"In deceptive caching, according to our definition, the animals cover over empty cache sites, or alternatively move a few meters away from a cached acorn and perform covering behaviour," Discovery News quoted lead author Michael Steele, as saying.
For the study Steele and his colleagues observed this food deception among squirrels at Kirby Park in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
Co-author Sylvia Halkin then led a second experiment on the campus of Central Connecticut State University. In the experiment, one person provided the squirrels with peanuts, a second watched squirrel behaviour and a third person actually pilfered nuts from the rodents.
When the squirrels noticed the human peanut pilfering, they started their misleading behaviour by covering sites where no food had been stored.
They also made an attempt to hoard nuts in more remote places, such as under bushes and in tree nests, stumps or cavities. They even turned to eating nuts rather than storing them.
In fact, the squirrels were si good at digging fake storage holes, that they often deceived the human pilferers, who had a hard time finding the peanuts.
"It appears that other squirrels are able to watch a caching squirrel and then go directly to the cache site, even if chased or interrupted in their path to the cache site," Steele explained.
"However, once they arrive at an empty cache site, they give up the search as soon as they discover that it is empty," he added.
Steele suspects that squirrels are tactical deceivers and hopes that future research will confirm these suspicions.
The findings are published in the current issue of the journal Animal Behaviour.