How do squirrels think? This Berkeley lab is studying the revered campus rodent to find out

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On a recent day, three UC Berkeley researchers scanned the leaf-strewn campus hunting for treasures.

They were armed with equipment that looked like metal detectors, but their quarry wasn’t dropped coins or jewelry. Doctoral student Mikel Delgado and her team were searching for hazelnuts they’d embedded with microchips to help them answer the question: How do squirrels decide where to bury their nuts?

“Got one!” called out Aryan Sharif, a senior studying ecology, as a number popped up on his microchip reader. Daniel Petrie, a research assistant, clipboard in hand, recorded that 5D49, buried by a squirrel nine months earlier, remained just where it had been, undisturbed.

Squirrels are so ubiquitous, they’re easy to ignore. But Delgado and others at the Jacobs Lab for Cognitive Biology say they’re more than bright-eyed and bushy-tailed; they’re brainy enough to deserve a close look.

Delgado, a Mexican American, was recruited to the federally funded McNair Scholars Program, which seeks to prepare underrepresented minorities and first-generation college students for doctoral studies. She considered programs with pigeons at Cornell University and cats at Washington State University and the University of Nebraska. But Berkeley had Jacobs, a top-notch doctoral advisor, and the best financial package — a $24,000 annual stipend that allowed her to focus on her research, without teaching, for two years.

Today, Delgado splits her affections. Her Tolman Hall office is decorated with squirrel paraphernalia — squirrel-sized underpants, a squirrel nutcracker, squirrel cookie cutters. But she also has two pet cats and a tattoo on her leg in memory of Kittums, the grey and white tabby who made the trek with her from Maine.

In her free time, on her blog catsandsquirrels.com, she chronicles the exploits of squirrels — stealing Christmas bulbs, getting stuck in manholes — and reports on the perils of feline pudginess. She also co-runs a cat consulting business.

On track to finish her dissertation this fall, she is applying for various jobs, including postdoctoral and faculty positions. She isn’t sure she’ll continue to study squirrels — but she’s certain, based on her observations, that they’ll continue to thrive.

“Even if we disappear, squirrels will keep doing what they’ve been doing for millions of years,” she said.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

Twitter: @teresawatanabe


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