Thursday, February 23, 2012

Animals in Translation

Okay. This was actually stunning news to me. Squirrels remember where they bury their nuts.

I read this in Temple Grandin’s book “Animals in Translation”. Ms. Grandin is a Doctor of Animal Science and professor at Colorado State University, bestselling author, consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior – and a person with high-functioning autism. Much of her academic work centers on her belief that autistic people and animals view the world similarly – for example both see EVERY detail; both think in pictures rather than words. Her general technique is to observe how she herself thinks and behaves in a particular situation – and when she sees an animal behaving in the same manner she deduces that they are thinking similarly.
For example it is apparently a proven fact in the world of animal behavior that ants use landmarks to find their way to and from a place. When taking a trip for the first time when an ant walks by a potential marker such as a gray stone it will stop and look back at it. Grandin does the same thing when she is driving an unfamiliar route. That is because, unlike non-Autistic people, she cannot imagine what the landmark (e.g. a red barn) would look like from the other side. Likewise ants.

Makes sense to me – or at least I can see it from her point of view.

As you might expect this means Grandin feels that animals are more intelligent than most of us would give them credit for – hence the squirrel/acorn thing.

For years it was thought that squirrels buried acorns randomly in the fall and were just as haphazard in their springtime retrieval of them. Then, through careful observation, it was noticed that they actually recovered the vast majority of them. It was then hypothesized that the little tree rodents used odor of the oak fruit to locate it. But if that were the whole story then the squirrels would just as frequently dig up the cache of other of their brethren as their own. But they didn’t. Somehow they remembered where their own nuts were. Pretty impressive when you think that, based this time upon my observations, an average tree-rat probably buries several score of acorns. (She says six hundred.)

Grandin avers that they do it by “triangulation” – “the process of determining the location of a point by measuring angles to it from known points at either end of a fixed baseline, rather than measuring distances to the point directly (trilateration). The point can then be fixed as the third point of a triangle with one known side and two known angles.” (wiki)

Unfortunately she does not provide anecdotal autistic evidence (as in the ant story) or any other kind of proof for her assertion of the squirrel’s geometric acumen – which, if true, clearly outstrips that of any human being.

Of course historically the fluffy gray tree rodents have outsmarted humans for decades and/or we have underestimated them

So perhaps the apparent look of bewilderment that frequently comes over the face of a squirrel as it rushes around our yard in search of its cached crop of nuts is not caused by an inability to recall where the acorns were buried but rather stunned surprise at remembering the combination, opening the lock, and finding an empty safe deposit box.

This could become the case this year because of the warm snow-less winter that we are experiencing here in CT. One result of the abnormally mild winter is the multitudinous murders of crows that should have migrated through our neck of the woods – but instead have remained for multiple months.

Crows also are acorn-caching animals. But more importantly they are also opportunistic eaters with a self-serving imagination that allows them to believe that the nuts they are harvesting are ones that they have planted. (I am imagining this last bit of crow rationalization – but from my perspective it’s a lot easier to believe than the whole squirrel triangulation thing. I mean really – would you trust a crow?)

The bigger problem for our squirrels this year however is going to be the absence of triangulating landmarks. After the acorns fell from our oaks Marsha and I had a couple of other large trees and a two Roses of Sharon taken down. Had we realized at the time that this foliage might have been variables in the squirrels’ geometric calculation we undoubtedly would have waited until after the nut burying season to lop down the lumber. But we didn’t. So we didn’t.
Who knows if the tree rodents used this now-missing flora as “known points at either end of a fixed baseline” – but presumably they have a backup plan. Or can develop one quickly.

Temple Grandin says that intelligence is the ability to come up with a new solution to a novel situation. In one town the handicapped sidewalks were designed with one ramp per flag – that is at a four-corner stop there would be eight flags and eight ramps, each ramp leading into the crosswalk. The seeing-eye dogs were taught to lead their person down the ramp into the crosswalk. Then, to save money, the town began putting the ramps on the corner – four way stop, eight flags, four ramps. Thirty percent of the dogs continued down the ramp into the street and attempted to cross diagonally – not a huge surprise. However seventy percent walked down the ramp, turned right (or left), walked to the crosswalk, turned left (or right) and crossed between the white lines – the first time that they encountered the new configuration!

Okay squirrels – show us what you’ve got!

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