Squirreling Away Puzzle-Solving Skills?

squirrel puzzle wood

[Image courtesy of Southern Highland Guild.]

It was less than two months ago that we discussed whether the problem-solving puzzly skills of pigs were enough to grant them membership in the puzzle-solving creatures club, alongside catsdogscrowscockatoosoctopuses, and bees.

As it turns out, scientists have been studying “can animal x solve puzzles?” for longer than I thought. One academic paper, entitled “How to stay perfect: the role of memory and behavioural traits in an experienced problem and a similar problem,” was published back in July of 2017.

And they concluded that squirrels might be a worthy addition to the pantheon of puzzle solvers.

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According to the scientists involved:

A neophobia test in the generalisation task suggested squirrels perceived the different apparatus as a different problem, but they quickly came to apply the same effective tactics as before to solve the task… Squirrels remembered and emitted task-effective tactics more than ineffective tactics. As a result, they consistently changed from ineffective to effective behaviours after failed attempts at problem-solving.

They went on to cite previous studies involving creatures as varied as monitor lizards, Atlantic cod, spotted hyenas, lions, and goats:

With regard to returning to previously experienced task, selectivity appears to be an important factor in the success of captive lions, Panthera leo, in solving a suspended puzzle box up to 7 months after experiencing it (Borrego and Dowling 2016), in the success of goats, Capra hircus, in solving a two-step food box challenge 10 months after first experiencing it (Briefer et al. 2014)

squirrel 2

One of the main questions they were trying to answer was what role memory was playing in this puzzle-solving. Were they remembering their previous puzzly experience OR re-learning the same tactics a second time, separate from the first test? These were the parameters:

Here, we examined how memory, alongside behavioural traits, contributes to enhance problem-solving efficiency by giving five grey squirrels, firstly a previously experienced task 22 months after they had last experienced it (hereafter, the ‘recall task’), and secondly a task requiring a previously successful action to be performed in a physically different apparatus (hereafter, the ‘generalisation task’).

Nearly two years between the initial solve and the secondary test! That’s a huge chunk of time. As Dan said in the Room Escape Artist article about this study, “22 months! I could probably replay an entire escape room after 22 months and not even notice.”

But that length of time was intentional, given the test subjects involved:

Grey squirrels are also known to have good long-term memory, at least in the spatial domain: they are scatter hoarders that cache thousands of nuts during the autumn (Thompson and Thompson 1980), and they are able to relocate their own caches (Jacobs and Liman 1991) and artificial caches (Macdonald 1997) after long intervals of time.

squirrel puzzle

So, what did they find when they tested Arnold, Leonard, Sarah, Simon, and Suzy in the lab?

In our case, squirrels may pay attention to cues such as the levers that contain hazelnuts to locate which lever to solve. But unlike what has been found in tool-use studies, the use of cues did not develop with increased experience during problem-solving. Squirrels showed an immediate strong preference to contact functional levers rather than non-functional levers, both when they first encountered this puzzle box 22 months prior to this study (Chow et al. 2016) and in the first trial of the recall task. These results imply that squirrels quickly focused their attention on the reward and reward-related components of the apparatus (levers) from their first encounter with the puzzle box.

In short, applying previously learned knowledge makes them far more effective problem-solvers!

Sounds like it’s time to add squirrels to the list.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to start researching lions, hyenas, cod, monitor lizards, and any other animal studies cited in the footnotes. Clearly I have catching up to do!


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