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Squirrels winning at outwitting trees' survival strategy

EAST LANSING, Mich. If you look at evolutionary biology as a big game of "Survivor," it's squirrels: one, spruce trees: zero.

In the Dec. 22 edition of Science, Andrew McAdam, an assistant professor of fisheries and wildlife at Michigan State University, outlines how red squirrels have figured out a way around the elaborate ruse trees have used to protect their crops of tasty seeds.

The remarkable part: The squirrels are divining the arrival of bumper crops of spruce cones months before the cones ever materialize and then betting on those crops with the most expensive evolutionary collateral a second litter of pups.

"We've been watching a co-evolutionary arms race where the trees and the squirrels are constantly trying to outwit each other," McAdam said. "The trees' strategy to outwit the squirrels has been documented, but now we've documented a counter strike by the squirrels."

The study, funded in part by the National Science Foundation and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, allows scientists to track the push and pull of evolution against an unforgiving struggle for survival.

McAdam, Stan Boutin from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, and other international collaborators have been studying two different types of squirrels, which share the red squirrel' name but are only distantly related, in the forests of Canada, Belgium and Italy. The study has been going on for 20 years, with each squirrel carefully tracked.

The red squirrels on this side of the ocean dine almost exclusively on the seeds of spruce cones, which they gnaw off before the seeds ripen. The squirrels are thus a major enemy of the spruce trees. If the squirrels become too successful, their hoarding and gorging on the cones thwarts the trees' ability to cast seeds and reproduce. So the battle continues.

Over the years, the trees devised a strategy called masting in which they unpredictably every few yea
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Contact: Andrew McAdam
mcadama@msu.edu
517-432-0396
Michigan State University
21-Dec-2006


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