Inheriting a food cache is like “finding a winning lottery ticket” for squirrels

Have you ever secretly hoped some long-lost relative you’ve never met would pass away and leave you their fortune?

For red squirrels, that scenario may well be the key to their survival.

According to a new study by University of Alberta researchers, young squirrels who inherit food caches left behind by older male squirrels have 50 per cent more offspring than those who do not.

“It is neat to think that the success of an individual can be influenced by individuals they never encounter in their lives,” said study co-author Professor Stan Boutin. “It’s like humans who build up important assets during their lives which then serve to benefit future generations.”

The research, published in Ecology Letters, was conducted by university’s Department of Biological Sciences along with the University of Guelph as part of the ongoing Kluane Red Squirrel Project.

Scientists counted food caches and found they contained up to 145,000 spruce cones, with an average of about 20,000 cones.

One cache was even active for 31 years and used by 13 different squirrels.

“Young squirrels need to move out of ‘home’ by the autumn of the year in which they are born,” Boutin added. “They can’t push adults off of territories and food caches so they have to find places left vacant by the death of an adult. The juveniles then inherit whatever is left in the food store when the adult died.”

Male red squirrel. Photo: University of Alberta

For squirrels, the best chance of a large inheritance is coming across a cache left behind from a three- to four-year-old male squirrel.

“We think males store more cones than females because they need to access food resources to fuel breeding behaviour during the winter months, when snow prevents foraging off of the food store,”  Boutin explained.

Females, meanwhile, need food in the spring to help feed their pups. But that’s when finding food is easier so hoarding isn’t really necessary.

According to the University of Alberta, “The bigger the inheritance, the better the chances of survival for both young squirrels and their future families—much like a young couple finding a winning lottery ticket in their new apartment.”

Red squirrel in the Alberta Rocky Mountains.


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Recovering newspaper reporter.

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