The Squirrels Are Watching You

Squirrels are among the most recognizable, easy to find kinds of urban wildlife. And, as it turns out, they're watching us.


In a non-parody blog post that Scicurious wrote in advance of the video above (which is clearly a parody), she explains that squirrels pay attention to humans - in particular, they pay attention to our gaze. If we're looking at them, they're more likely to run away. If we're mostly ignoring them, they'll let us get pretty close. That's pretty sophisticated behavior for a tiny squirrel.

Squirrels "can tell if a human is looking at them," or if a person behaves in an unusual way, Bateman found. Squirrels were 40 percent more likely to scoot if Bateman focused his attention on them. And 90 percent of the squirrels leapt away if the scientist left the sidewalk to stalk them across the grass. "They don't get scared by humans all the time," he explains. But they always seem to pay close attention to what people do. Bateman published his results June 12 in the Journal of Zoology.

This focus on how people behave, Bateman says, helps the animals forage as long as possible, while still avoiding people who might pose a threat. "It's their ability to use these tiny cues"— such as whether a human is on the sidewalk, or looking at a squirrel — that allows the animals to be such successful city dwellers.


Scicurious (aka Bethany Brookshire) and Scott Lewis didn't just make this video for kicks (though one assumes they had a super fun time making it).

They made it in an effort to raise money to support the #DIYScienceZone at GeekGirlCon, which happens in a few weeks in Seattle. They need at least $6,000 to cover the costs of engaging kids - both boys and girls - in science. The deal, apparently, is that the folks behind the #DIYScienceZone will "perform acts of whimsy" - including making silly science videos like the one above - in exchange for donations. Find out how to donate here.

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How likely is it for a wild squirrel to become habituated to humans? In the city I grew up in, there was one park where the squirrels would surround you if you had any food, sometimes getting so close as to jump up on the picnic table (but stay at one end of it). When I was in college, there was a famous squirrel with a blue collar near the dorms that was being studied. It was so used to people it would come right up to you, close enough to be fed by hand. No one did that, but that's how habituated it was. That same squirrel would also cut upside-down L-shaped holes in dorm window screens and raid rooms of their cereal and crackers.