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Caching for where and what: evidence for a mnemonic strategy in a scatter-hoarder.

R Soc Open Sci. 2017 Sep;4(9):170958

Authors: Delgado MM, Jacobs LF

Scatter-hoarding animals face the task of maximizing retrieval of their scattered food caches while minimizing loss to pilferers. This demand should select for mnemonics, such as chunking, i.e. a hierarchical cognitive representation that is known to improve recall. Spatial chunking, where caches with the same type of content are related to each other in physical location and memory, would be one such mechanism. Here we tested the hypothesis that scatter-hoarding eastern fox squirrels (Sciurus niger) are organizing their caches in spatial patterns consistent with a chunking strategy. We presented 45 individual wild fox squirrels with a series of 16 nuts of four different species, either in runs of four of the same species or 16 nuts offered in a pseudorandom order. Squirrels either collected each nut from a different location or collected all nuts from a single location; we then mapped their subsequent cache distributions using GPS. The chunking hypothesis predicted that squirrels would spatially organize caches by nut species, regardless of presentation order. Our results instead demonstrated that squirrels spatially chunked their caches by nut species but only when caching food that was foraged from a single location. This first demonstration of spatial chunking in a scatter hoarder underscores the cognitive demand of scatter hoarding.

PMID: 28989788 [PubMed]