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10 Nutty Facts About Squirrels

Alan Boyle

Squirrels are impressive. They can leap 10 times their body length. They can turn their ankles 180 degrees to face any direction when climbing. They have good eyesight, and they can learn from copying other animals—even humans. They also come out in the daytime, making them one of the few wild mammals that many of us have a chance of seeing. Whether you think they’re a nuisance or an adorable addition to our cities, there are a whole bunch of reasons to find them fascinating.

10 Squirrel Spies

squirrel taking a picture
It’s not unheard of to use animals in warfare, so when Iran found 14 squirrels near their border with espionage equipment, they did the sensible thing and arrested them. The incident was reported by the country’s official news agency, and confirmed by the country’s chief of police, though he said he didn’t have any details. Everyone took the opportunity to make a “this is nuts!” joke, including the UK’s Foreign Office.

Some Iranians were perfectly willing to believe that a foreign power may be turning to bushy-tailed agents. One went so far as to suggest it was the Brits behind it. In any case, there are no further reports of squirrel infiltration, which has left time for Iran to start arresting pigeons instead.

9 Bubonic Plague

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You probably know that bubonic plague is spread by rats, or rather by the fleas that live on them. Rats are usually associated with disease, yet plague-infected fleas are quite happy to live on other rodents as well. One of the most troublesome in the modern world is the squirrel. There were 56 cases of plague recorded in the US between 2000 and 2009, and squirrels were among the main offenders.

One notable case in 2012 was seven-year-old Sierra Jane Downing. She placed her sweater down next to a dead squirrel while on holiday and fell ill a few days later. While the bubonic plague has killed tens of millions of people throughout history, it’s treatable with antibiotics, and Sierra made a full recovery. In 2013 authorities shut down camping in Los Angeles National Forest when an infected squirrel was found living there. In the same year, a 15-year-old boy from Kyrgyzstan died when he caught the disease from a mountain squirrel, and 100 people had to be quarantined.

8 Obstacle Courses

You may have heard that the Internet is like a series of tubes, but that’s not entirely accurate. In reality it’s more like a collection of rabbit holes down which you tumble until you notice that the sun has set, you’re hungry, and you have dozens of browser tabs open. If you like cute little critters, then a search for “squirrel obstacle course” on YouTube gives 17,500 results with which to put yourself into a day-destroying trance.

Squirrels are clever, and can learn to navigate numerous obstacles to find the most efficient route to food. In fact, one of the trickier parts of setting up an obstacle course for these little rodents is the fact that they’re very good at finding shortcuts. Yet when it does go right, they’re more than capable of leaping onto wobbly platforms, windmills, and tightropes—and even riding along in a little cart.

7 Squirrels And Rattlesnakes

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Photo credit: jkirkhart35

The squirrels of California have spent the last 10 million years in an arms race with rattlesnakes, and they’ve come up with a couple clever ways to fend off the predators. They have fantastic reflexes, and can react quickly enough to dodge a snake during the fraction of a second that it takes for the reptile to lunge. The snakes need to be sure they’re attacking their potential meal with the utmost surprise or it’s not worth the energy to leap out.

Rattlesnakes sense their prey using infrared. If the squirrels notice the snakes first, or enter an area where an ambush is likely, the rodent raises its tail and floods it with blood. This causes the tail to become warm, which stands out like a beacon to the snakes. While this may sound like literally the worst possible maneuver, the snakes recognize the gesture as a “I know you’re there, so you’re not going to surprise me,” and so don’t even bother to attack.

The same squirrels have also come up with a way to deter predators that track using scent. They find a dead rattlesnake, chew its skin, and then lick themselves. This leaves the squirrels smelling like snakes, and scientists believes this tricks animals into thinking that the squirrels’ burrows are actually home to a few feet of coiled, venomous danger, rather than a tasty mammalian snack.

6 Saber-Toothed Squirrel

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One of the most iconic fictional squirrels isn’t really a squirrel at all. Scrat, the acorn loving critter from Ice Age, is actually a completely fictional species. His design, adorably goofy though it is, didn’t impress experts. Paleontologist Guillermo Rougier, from the University of Louisville, said, “when Ice Age came out, we thought the squirrel character in it looked ridiculous.”.

Yet in 2002, the same year the movie came out, a team of paleontologists were unearthing some fossils in Argentina. One of their finds was a 60-million-year-old mammal skull—which looked exactly like a squirrel with an elongated snout and saber teeth. While the new find may have looked like Scrat, it likely didn’t share its love of acorns. Scientists think it most likely used its oversize canines to hunt insects, but they can’t be certain. The species, named Cronopio dentiacutus, is dissimilar to anything alive today outside the world of animation.

5 Hoarding For The Winter

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The most iconic behavior of squirrels is storing nuts and acorns for winter. This habit is necessary for the many squirrel species that don’t hibernate. Researchers from the University of California have observed a desire to store a diverse range of food, including acorns, walnuts, hazelnuts, and a bunch of others. Having a small animal bury a seed in the ground is good for the tree it came from, too—squirrels are considered extremely important to the growth of forests, and are partially responsible for oak coverage in much of America.

Storing up nuts has risks, and a species of red squirrel has developed a backup plan. If they’re running low on food, they harvest maple syrup directly from trees. That involves the squirrel scoring the maple’s bark with its teeth, letting the sap leak, and returning to lick it later when it’s dried up. While this strategy was only observed by science this century, a traditional tale of the Iroquois people suggests maple syrup was first discovered when a young boy saw a squirrel licking a tree.

4 Particularly Pesky Pests

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Small mammals are notorious pests, and they each have their own particular way of causing trouble. Rats will eat basically anything, and rabbits breed like rabbits, but a squirrel’s talent for causing nuisance is its capacity for acrobatics. The same thing that makes obstacle course videos so entertaining makes it nearly impossible to keep squirrels out. That’s why the first result that turns up in an image search for “squirrel-proof bird feeder” is a picture of a squirrel happily eating from a squirrel-proof bird feeder.

While you might not expect to be able to keep squirrels out of your back garden, there are some places you’d expect to fare a little better—places like the United State’s active nuclear missile silos. But no, the people in charge of an arsenal that could literally end civilization have had to resort to trial and error to stop an invasion from Richardson’s ground squirrels.

Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base houses 150 nuclear missiles, each of which is capable of deploying three warheads 20 times more powerful than the bomb that hit Nagasaki. Among the measures in place to protect them are motion sensors that trigger if anything breaches the fences around the silos. But the ground squirrels aren’t only capable of climbing over fences, they’re also accomplished diggers. The squirrels’ tunnels can exceed 9 meters (30 ft) in length. Thousands of false security alerts were caused by their habit of popping up in the restricted area. They have also caused damage to roads, wires, and building foundations.

The first attempt to keep the squirrels from tunneling in was a combination of chain mesh and steel fabric underground. The squirrels chewed their way through it (because living around the nukes had turned them into Hulk squirrels, presumably). Several fence materials were tried, but the squirrels just climbed over. The Air Force has finally figured out a combination that seems to work—a sheer plastic fence above ground, and solid metal sheeting below. The squirrels are staying out, for now.

3 Nutty Narrows Bridge

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Photo credit: Avi

In 1963, the city of Longview, Washington, had a problem. Squirrels were being killed trying to cross a busy highway. A kindhearted local offered to build a bridge for free, and it was named Nutty Narrows by a local councilor. The 18 meter (60 ft) long bridge was put in place above the road, and essentially turned the town into the squirrel-lovers’ capital of America.

The city now holds an annual Squirrel Fest. The bridge has a live webcam feed. When the bridge was taken down to be cleaned, the locals held a ceremony to mark its return. Another three bridges have been installed, and more are likely to go up in the future. The president of the local Rotary Club said, “we’re going to turn this city dark with so many bridges.” That sort of Spartan enthusiasm has shattered empires, so we think the squirrels will be fine.

2 Squirrel Masturbation

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Male Cape ground squirrels have really big genitalia, relatively speaking. Their penises are 40 percent of the length of their body, while their testicles are about half that length. The lengthy penis is something they use to their utmost advantage during masturbation, and their technique has reached what many consider a holy grail: The squirrels bend over and stick their penis in their own mouth.

Researcher Jane Waterman monitored the animals in Namibia to figure out if there’s an advantage to this behavior, or if it’s simply an unintended consequence of a high sex drive. She found that males were more likely to masturbate after mating, rather than when sex was hard to come by. Waterman believes that masturbation may help clean the genitals, inside and out, to prevent infection. She suggests that it’s similar to what makes some men want to urinate after orgasm, but because the squirrels are in the desert they go for an option that uses less water.

1 Squirrel Mysteries

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Squirrels have been at the heart of a few mysteries the last couple of years. In one incident, they were discovered to be behind a spate of soap thefts on a street in England. Residents had been baffled by their toiletries disappearing, until a squirrel was caught running out a bathroom window with a bar of soap. Nobody is sure exactly what the squirrels are doing with their loot, because they usually make a clean getaway (and you thought “nutty” was as bad as the puns in this list would get).

When someone on Reddit posted a picture of what looked like a black demon monkey crawling along a fence, the community spent awhile trying to figure out which abyssal dimension it came from. The picture at the center of the mystery had been taken from behind, but when a photograph of the creature’s face was found, it was very obviously a hairless squirrel.

In 2012, another photograph of an odd-looking squirrel caused a stir online. This one was very obviously a squirrel, but it was distinctly purple. The animal was captured by a family in Pennsylvania, who took several pictures of it in a cage. It’s uncertain quite how the critter ended up looking like a plum—it might have eaten something, or got itself covered in something that stains.

Whatever the reason, it’s not the only time it’s happened. A purple squirrel became a local celebrity at a school in the south of England in 2008. Maybe it stole the wrong type of soap?

Alan likes to climb trees and has a stash of food to get him through the winter (though it’s mainly chocolate). If he had a garden, he would turn it into some sort of Squirrelopolis.