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Squirrels place winning bet in unpredictable world

he trees produce a big crop in the fall, it is too late for the seed eaters to take advantage of it and they are forced to wait until the following year.

Except the tree didnt count on one important factor: a cunning squirrel that seems to have foiled the trees plans. Somehow, the squirrel is able to predict the upcoming big crop and devotes energy to producing a second litter, maximizing the number of youngsters available to eat the mature seed available in the fall. The squirrel has "trumped the swamp and starve strategy," says Boutin, by increasing its numbers before the big seed crop rather than in the following year.

"Lots of animals time their reproduction to match predictable increases in resources like the new growth of plants every spring," said Boutin. "But the interesting twist here is that these squirrels have figured out a way to produce this second litter of babies at a time when they have little food and before an unpredictable boom in seed production.

"Its like the squirrels are using a very successful stock market strategy. Most of us invest conservatively when the market is down because our funds are tight and we cant predict when things will turn around. Its not until the market has improved and is humming along that we increase our investment. Squirrels do the opposite, investing heavily when they have barely enough to get by but just before the market turns favorable. The result is that their investment their babiespay big dividends in the upcoming favorable market, which in this case is lots of seed."

The red squirrels also seemed to have figured their way around an additional evolutionary challenge, says Boutin. To be able to produce a second litter while the female is lactating, and therefore typically not ovulating, surprised the researchers. "These squirrels are doing something special to get over the physiological barriers that are usually in their way," he said.

While the research
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Contact: Phoebe Dey
phoebe.dey@ualberta.ca
780-492-0437
University of Alberta
21-Dec-2006


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