Are squirrels the next contenders for the evolution of human-like thought?  This question was raised jokingly at a recent SETI webinar considering the evolution of life, but for UC-Berkeley psychology professor Lucia Jacobs, the idea of intelligent squirrels is no joke.

I met the slightly frazzled and just-on-time Jacobs at the National Academy of Sciences colloquia In the Light of Evolution V1: Brains and Behavior, where she presented her research on the hippocampus, primordial senses (smell), and cognition (The Evolution of a Cognitive Trait, from Chemotaxis to Associative Learning) in squirrels.  And not just any squirrels, but our very own campus squirrels.  Bold, abundant, and well fed, campus squirrels may make better behavioral study volunteers than Psych I freshman.

Jacobs is not the only one studying Berkeley campus squirrels. Mikel Delgado, a 2nd year graduate student in Jacobs’ lab, studies decision-making, time investment, and caching behavior in squirrels (caching is the process of a squirrel analyzing and then burying a nut for later retrieval).  Her participants are Fox Squirrels; redder and heavier than the Eastern Grey Squirrels of San Francisco, they have taken over Berkeley campus and monopolized the squirrel niche.  In Delgado’s study, the squirrels truly are participants – and quite willing ones at that.  The pay is high (density nuts) and the “testing” is non-invasive – just do normal squirrel things.