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Squirrels winning at outwitting trees' survival strategy

rs produce an overabundance of cones. Boutin, the study's lead author, said it's called a "swamp and starve" strategy to take predators by surprise, flooding the market with more seeds than the squirrels could harvest. The starve part of the strategy comes from the few cones that are produced in the years between bumper crops.

Swamp and starve is designed to play to the squirrels' weakness. Squirrels are territorial and need not only food to feed growing pups, but also a place for their offspring to call their own. When there are lots of cones, there is plenty to feed pups, but the catch is that adults also survive well so there aren't many vacancies for young squirrels searching for a home.

"If you produce lots of pups after the mast, there's no place for them to go." McAdam said. "To be successful they need to produce the pups ahead of time." What the latest paper shows is that the squirrels are on to the trees' game, McAdam said. Prior to masting seasons, the squirrels are producing second litters an act that would be, well, squirrelly in seasons of low food supply. But a population boom that coincides with a seed boom is brilliant. More food means more places for juvenile squirrels to set up shop.

"What we've shown is that the squirrels also are playing an adaptive strategy," McAdam said. "They're not just following along; they're making reproductive decisions that are best for them. This is about how red squirrels make a living in a variable world and how they make reproductive decisions in what seems like unpredictability. And given the currency they use, the stakes are high."

Boutin speculates that buds the spruce trees put out the summer before cones develop may hold the clues to a masting event. These buds differentiate in the summer; some become tree branches, some develop into cones. The squirrels eat the buds and may detect which destiny they'll follow thus getting a tip-off to an upcoming masting event.


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Contact: Andrew McAdam
mcadama@msu.edu
517-432-0396
Michigan State University
21-Dec-2006


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