Trust Fund Squirrels That Inherit Food Hoards Succeed at Life, Study Finds

Not fair.

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Mar 7 2019, 5:37pm

Red squirrel. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Squirrels, like humans, can be trust fund kids, benefitting from caches of spruce cones left behind by older generations, according to new research.

These privileged individuals are more successful in life, having the “time and energy” to bear more offspring—roughly 50 percent more than squirrels who didn’t receive a nutty inheritance—the Star Calgary reported on Wednesday.

Scientists with the Kluane Red Squirrel Project in Canada’s southwest Yukon have been monitoring the value of food stores to red squirrels in the region, showing just how reliant the species is on its main food source, white spruce cones. The team’s findings were published to Ecology Letters last month, based on data collected between 1987 and 2017.

“All squirrels need these hoards to survive winter and every individual has a hoard,” Stan Boutin, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta and principle investigator for the project, told Motherboard in an email. “However, individuals die leaving the cones they have not consumed in the hoard.”

The wealth isn’t necessarily handed down from parents to children like in humans, rather it’s more opportunistic. When young, coneless squirrels set off on their own, some are lucky enough to stumble upon abandoned stores. This in turn endows them with a cushier life; less time spent hunting for food, and more time for making babies.

The project also noticed that hoards passed on by male and middle-age squirrels tend to be more abundant than those once belonging to juvenile, old, or female squirrels.

“This is because males and middle-aged squirrel’s tend to store more cones,” Boutin explained. On average, male caches contained 1,300 more cones than those of females, the study noted.

But unlike humans, bounties aren’t necessarily bestowed to children by their parents.

“[They’re] sometimes passed on to relatives but in many cases the inheritance comes from a stranger or an unrelated neighbor,” Boutin said.

Each September, after the squirrels have finished amassing their food stores, Boutin and his colleagues sample the hoards, counting the number of new and old cones. This helps them to understand how ownership changes over time.

One such trove was utilized by 13 different squirrels over 31 years, the Star Calgary noted.

The Kluane Red Squirrel Project claims that global warming is already shaping red squirrel behavior. Climate change has increased the propagation of spruce cones in the fall, and warmer spring temperatures have made breeding more “advantageous” for the species.

“We are interested in the characteristics of individual squirrels that make them ‘winners’ relative to the other squirrels they compete with,” Boutin said.

“What is it about some squirrels that make them a winner versus a loser,” he added, “and how do winning characteristics change with environmental conditions?”

Is this the same for human trust fund kids? Maybe not. But if anyone would like to leave me their cone hoard, I’d graciously accept.