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Education

Squirrels stash strategically, and a chemist’s luxuriant locks are up for bid

by Rachel Sheremeta Pepling
January 22, 2018 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 96, ISSUE 4

Squirrelly strategies

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Credit: Mikel Delgado
Savvy stasher: Fox squirrels use different strategies for caching nuts.
Credit: Mikel Delgado
Savvy stasher: Fox squirrels use different strategies for caching nuts.

Ever think squirrels mindlessly bury nuts in any old place? Think again, dear readers. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, recently published a study demonstrating for the first time that eastern fox squirrels (Sciurus niger) employ complex sorting processes to more easily locate their nut caches and recall what’s in them (R. Soc. Open Sci. 2017, DOI: 10.1098/rsos.170958).

During one experiment, each squirrel was given 16 nuts of four species to forage for—almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, and walnuts. The researchers then followed the squirrels with GPS units to record where the furry rodents buried their nutritional treasures.

When foraging from a central location, the squirrels tended to bury the same kinds of nuts in the same area—a process known as chunking. If a squirrel picked up an almond, it would cache it in an area where it had buried other almonds, possibly as a way to help conserve brain space or physical energy during foraging.

When foraging from multiple locations, however, they eschewed the “like with like” principle and instead simply avoided caching in places where they had already buried any kind of nut. This strategy not only helps evenly cover a territory, but it could also help thwart a thieving squirrel from raiding another squirrel’s entire stash of high-value nuts, such as walnuts.

Evidently, fox squirrels are fairly sophisticated stashers.

Hair for charity

Credit: Antonio Padilla
Cutting for a cause: Nottingham professor Antonio Padilla snips some strands of Martyn Poliakoff’s famed white mane to sell on eBay.
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Credit: Antonio Padilla
Hair tube: Fans of Periodic Videos can purchase a vial of The Professor’s famed white hair.
Credit: Antonio Padilla
Hair tube: Fans of Periodic Videos can purchase a vial of The Professor’s famed white hair.

Squirrel this next item away in the “never know what you’ll find on eBay” category. Fans of Periodic Videos may be interested to know that they can own a snippet of Martyn (The Professor) Poliakoff’s famed white mop of hair.

Fellow University of Nottingham professor Antonio Padilla approached Poliakoff for his hair as a creative fundraiser to help with medical expenses for a longtime friend, Matt Henderson, who was recently diagnosed with esophageal cancer. “Martyn obviously has a big fan base, so some people would like to have a bit of his most famous feature!” Padilla tells Newscripts. Poliakoff agreed to the request, and Padilla soon appeared in his office with a pair of scissors. “I left his office leaving him a bit lopsided, to be honest,” Padilla confesses.

The eBay listing includes not only a lock of The Professor’s mane in a vial from his lab, but also a signed certificate of authenticity and photo, and one of Poliakoff’s business cards. As of press time, eight packs were still available at £26 each (about $35). A prospective purchaser can also place a bid. All proceeds are being donated to #Help4Matt.

What does Poliakoff think of the unusual fundraiser? “Matt’s illness is very sad. I was delighted to help even in such a small way.”

Rachel Pepling wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org.

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