Juvenile animals must learn and survive at the same time –– how to find food, make friends, escape predators. In short, they face the same problems as adults with fewer resources. A juvenile squirrel, born in the spring, faces daunting odds –– close to three quarters of the juveniles will die from starvation, predation or accident in that first summer. Partnering with Bay Area wildlife rescue organization WildCare, we study captive juveniles to understand these learning processes, with the goal of using these data to determine if individual differences in captivity predict long-term success after they are re-released. 

The work is funded by a MURI grant from the Army Research Office for the consortium “The Science of Embodied Cognition”. Helmed by roboticist Dan Koditschek (Penn), the group comprises teams led by material scientist Shu Yang (Penn), biomechanicist Bob Full (The Polypedal Lab, Berkeley), neuroethologist/engineer Noah Cowan (Johns Hopkins), behavioral neuroscientist Jim Knierim (Johns Hopkins) and mathematician Yuliy Baryshnikov (Univ Illinois Urbana).

Key Papers

Hunt NH, Jinn J, Jacobs LF, Full RJ (2021) Acrobatic squirrels learn to leap and land on tree branches without falling. Science 373:697–700. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abe5753     PDF

Waismeyer, A. S. , & Jacobs, L. F. (2013). The emergence of flexible spatial strategies in young children. Developmental Psychology, 49(2), 232–242.  https://doi.org/10.1037/a0028334      PDF

Waisman AS, Jacobs LF (2008) Flexibility of cue use in the fox squirrel (Sciurus niger). Anim Cogn 11:625–636. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-008-0152-5    PDF

A new world

An eastern gray squirrel is released into the large outdoor experimental arena.

Bright eyed and bushy tailed

We are studying the adaptive significance of tail morphology in tree squirrels – how did it evolve and how does it function?

Setting up the caching trays

Mike Kaiser (lab manager) and Marissa Grimes (undergraduate research assistant) building our experimental arena.

Shopping for squirrel toys

Mike Kaiser and Marissa Grimes find a trove of novel objects for our personality tests.