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Why Do Squirrels Shake Their Tails & Other Squirrel Questions

brown squirrel sitting in the grass eating an acorn

Do Squirrels Have Feelings?

Just like humans, squirrels are mammals. And just like humans, squirrels experience emotions. If you have ever spent time with squirrels, then you know that squirrels can feel happy, angry, curious and frustrated. Squirrels don't show their feelings with visible facial expressions, so it can be difficult to gauge their emotions by trying to extract what you would from a human.

Are Squirrels Smart?

Squirrels are quite smart for an animal. They are able to adapt better than most animals and this is evidenced by them living almost anywhere around the world. Squirrels have also shown that memory and abstract thought are capabilities they possess, especially when it comes to hiding nuts. They can trick other animals that may want to steal their food by digging holes and then burying them without leaving food behind. 

How Do Squirrels Communicate?

Squirrels communicate their emotional states in a number of different ways. Squirrels growl, grind their teeth and they even stamp their feet. Researchers from the University of California at Berkeley recently learned that squirrels express frustration by shaking their bushy tails as well. The study used fox squirrels that were already distributed throughout the University’s campus. The fox squirrel is a close relative of the eastern grey squirrel. The campus squirrels were ideal candidates for the study since their behavior is a balance between tame and wild, which was perfect for the researchers in charge of the study. Also, since squirrels are a bit acclimated to human activity, squirrels don’t always run off upon encountering a human. This allows researchers to train squirrels to complete certain tasks. For example, past scientists have trained squirrels to open boxes full of nuts.

So Why Do Squirrels Shake Their Tails?

Squirrels will arc and swish their tails when feeling frustrated. The most recent study had squirrels venturing down pathways that had particular food items in a box waiting for them at the end. Some squirrels were pleased to open a box that contained cookies, but some squirrels were clearly upset that they had been robbed of their delicious meal. If a frustrated squirrel were unable to open a box containing food, then that squirrel wave and arch its bushy tail to notify its friends. The other squirrels would then take notice of their friend’s frustration, and avoid traveling down the path that led to the locked box. However, researchers still do not know if this tail wagging is an involuntary expression of frustration, or if the tail movements serve as signals to other squirrels.

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