Toggle Menu
  1. Home/
  2. Tech & Science/
  3. Discoveries/

The problem-solving grey squirrel, it uses long-term memory to get by

Grey squirrels are able to remember problem-solving techniques years after they’ve learned them in order to get food and survive. 

Squirrels in general have been lauded for their memory, as they are able to remember for months where they hid their food. But now scientists say that they also have a very good long term memory even when it comes to problem solving. And this particular feature could be the key in explaining why grey squirrels in particular have been so apt in thriving in urban areas.

Scientists form the University of Exeter took five squirrels and gave them a task identical to one they had tried 22 months earlier, in which they had to press levers to get hazelnuts. In that first experience, the squirrels improved with practice, taking an average of eight seconds on their first attempt and just two seconds by the final time they tried it. And after 22 months, it took the squirrels an average of just three second, to get their nut.


“This is not just remembering where things have been left, it shows they can recall techniques which they have not used for a long time,” said co-author Dr Théo Robert.”It’s also different from what we see in the wild because they’re remembering things for longer than the few months of memory needed to find hidden food.”

And this capacity of remembering previous techniques used to get food is what gives squirrels an advantage when living in urban areas, the scientists say.

“This might be why grey squirrels can survive very well in towns and cities,” said Dr Pizza Ka Yee Chow, of Exeter’s Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour. “For example, they’re very good at getting food from bird feeders. People may try different types of bird feeders to keep the squirrels away, but this research shows grey squirrels can not only remember tricks for getting food but can apply those skills in new situations.”

The scientists also found that while squirrels are neophobic creatures, meaning that they are scared of new things, they can apply the methods they’ve learned in order to solve new problems. The researchers presented the five grey squirrels with a new task but based on the same concept as the previous one. At first, the furry little creatures were cautious, but after 20 seconds, they approached the new task and it took them also an average of 2 seconds to get the hazelnut. Not only did they remember the what they had to do but they were also able to apply the same principle to a seemingly new problem.

The paper showing the grey squirrels’ long-term memory was published in the journal Animal Cognition.

Sylvia Jacob