Thursday, February 01, 2007

Psychic Red Squirrel

Are RED SQUIRRELS psychic? Scientists aren't willing to go that far, but they do say the animal has a built-in ability to stay one step ahead of its food source. According to Science, trees use an evolutionary "swamp and starve" tactic in attempts to prevent animals from eating its seed (Science 2006, 314, 1928). The trees attempt to starve predators some years, so that in fruitful years, there will be fewer seed predators around to consume the bountiful crop.

There's just one hitch in the near-perfect plan: The American and Eurasian red squirrel has concocted a counterattack. The red squirrel has somehow discovered how to anticipate a boom seed season and has responded by defying nature and producing an unusual second litter of pups.

"American reds gave birth to larger litters in advance of high food production and were most likely to breed as yearlings," the researchers state. "The most striking effect was that females produced a second litter after a successful first litter in advance of high food production. In most cases, females were still lactating with the first litter when they conceived the second, suggesting that the normal physiological inhibition of ovulation by lactation characteristic of mammals had been circumvented."

Although scientists have yet to understand how the red squirrel is able to predict the trees' behavior, they suspect it is linked to "visual or chemical stimuli," such as buds, flowers, or pollen cones, which "may be correlated with the size of the forthcoming seed crop." Now that's nuts.

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