Why Do Squirrels Bury Nuts? (and other mysteries)

If you live in a rural area, or near a park, you’ve probably observed this unique squirrel behavior. When the weather catches a chill, these bushy-tailed creatures begin what looks like preparation for a wide-scale scavenger hunt. In great numbers, these squirrels begin to bury nuts! Squirrels hide nuts this way as preparation for cold weather when otherwise food will be scarce. This kind of proactive stashing raises a lot of questions for squirrel enthusiasts—the most pressing being how do the squirrels find their nuts again? Eastern gray squirrels, in particular, bury their nuts far and wide. Scientists themselves aren’t even quite sure of everything that goes into this stashing behavior, but they have some ideas.

A squirrel eating one of its hidden nuts

Enjoying a well cached nut. Image: David De Lossy/iStock/Thinkstock

For one, scientists have observed gray squirrels frequently burying and reburying their nuts. The scientists posited that this behavior was to help always keep a fresh memory of the nut’s location. However, it’s not only memory that squirrels need to combat in order to find their nuts! The gray squirrel community is rampant with nut theft. Squirrels can lose as much as 25% of their cached nuts to such thieves! Luckily, squirrels have developed some clever tactics to protect their nuts. Scientists have observed squirrels creating false caches in order to trick thieves. If squirrels are suspicious of thieves, they will also start to hide their nuts in difficult to reach places (like under bushes or in muddy areas).  

A squirrel in shock at the nut thefts This squirrel is shocked at the number of thefts in the area. Image: Dgwildlife/iStock/Thinkstock

While it might be frustrating for squirrels to lose their carefully hidden nuts, it can be beneficial for other organisms. In particular, it can help the forest itself! A study done at the University of Richmond cites that squirrels fail to recover up to 74% of the nuts they bury. This misplacing of so many acorns (the seeds of oak trees), the study says, is likely responsible for oak forest regeneration. When squirrels misplace these buried acorns they allow for these seeds to eventually grow into full oak trees! The squirrels’ habit of widespread caching is also important to the growth of the forest, as it allows the genetic information to spread far.

What seemed like an innocuous scavenger hunt is actually part of an infinitely intricate ecosystem in our forests!  



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About the Author

Sarah Wells
Digital Media Intern

Sarah Wells is a rising senior at Clark University and hails from Montpelier, Vermont. She is majoring in English with a double minor in physics and computer science.