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11 Bushy-Tailed Facts About Eastern Gray Squirrels

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If you live in the United States, you’re probably surrounded by these little gray rodents. But how much do you really know about the creatures frolicking through your backyard?

1. Squirrels can be trained. 

When filming Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Tim Burton wanted his squirrel scene to be as realistic as possible. As a result, he used live animals instead of CGI and brought in animal trainer Steve Vedmore to wrangle the squirrels. It took about 10 months to train and film the animals in action. With an acorn reward system, the trainer was able to transform the squirrels into tiny, furry actors. 

Of course, there were some difficulties. "You are sometimes asked to do the almost impossible," Vedmore said. "The assistant director wanted us to keep a squirrel perfectly still at one point—but they don't do that. They are constantly looking around and searching.

2. They’re sneaky when hiding their nuts …

Squirrels are secretive, deceptive, and suspicious when it comes to their precious trove of acorns. The animals are wary when burying their food, and will sometimes only pretend to hide it if they suspect they are being watched. The paranoid hoarders will dig up and re-hide their snacks several times in an effort to throw off potential thieves. 

The clever rodents are also discerning in what acorns they eat versus what they bury. Red-oak acorns are high in fat and sprout late, so they make ideal candidates for winter storage. White-oak acorns are less nutritious and germinate sooner, so those are often consumed immediately.

3. … And they usually find them

It has long been believed that squirrels forget their hiding places and are forced to rely on smell to retrieve them. Any acorns still lost would have the chance to grow into trees. This misconception was tested in a 1990 study at Princeton University. Researchers allowed squirrels to hide hazelnuts in an outdoor area. After several days, the animals were released to find their nuts, as well as the hidden acorns of others. The subjects were considerably more capable of finding their own nuts, which showed that while squirrels can find food through odor, memory is a more effective method. [PDF

The video above shows a potentially more convincing test: Despite the acorn being well within smelling range, the squirrel test subject continuously chooses the empty cup where the acorn used to be. 

4. Relatives will raise orphan squirrels . 

Squirrels have been observed engaging in altruistic behavior and will sometimes adopt a squirrel pup in need. Through observation and DNA analysis, scientists have discovered that squirrels will sometimes have babies in their nest that are not their own. Despite being solitary creatures, squirrels will raise orphaned babies if they can determine that the pup is closely related

5. Bob Ross had one as a pet.

Bob Ross loved animals and even had a pet squirrel named Peapod. The tiny animal would occasionally accompany Ross on set. 

6. You can’t sneak up on them.

Squirrels’ eyesight is okay—they can see about as well as a person with red-green colorblindness. Their real talent is that their peripheral vision is just as good as their focal vision. That means they don’t need to turn their heads to see what’s going on around them. The animals also see the world through pale yellow lenses, which help cut down on glare. 

7. Cats have nothing on squirrels.

You may think cats are good at landing on their feet, but squirrels can fall from dizzying heights without a scratch on them. They are arboreal creatures, meaning they spend the majority of their time up in the trees. What goes up must come down, and the little animals have developed a special way to survive falling out of a tree, in case they misjudge the strength of a branch. By spreading out their bodies and puffing their tails, squirrels can catch more air and slow down their fall

As if that wasn't enough, squirrels can also purr. After a baby squirrel fell out of its nest in Mississippi, a kindly cat adopted it. The little impostor learned how to purr just like a kitten.

8. Their tail wagging sends a message.

Squirrels use their bushy tails for a variety of reasons. The built-in blanket keeps them warm in the winter, and provides shade in the summer. Tails also work as an effective means of communication: if you see a squirrel sitting still but wagging their tail, they’re sending a message. The general gist is: "Stay away!" When upset or wary of predators, the tail works to warn others in the area of danger. It’s also used as a territorial warning to keep other squirrels away from their precious acorn supply.  

9. Squirrels can live to see their 20th birthdays.

Squirrels live a long time. In the wild, their lifespan is about 12 years (assuming nothing eats them). In captivity, they can survive to be 20 years old. In comparison, eastern chipmunks can live to be eight, but most don’t make it past their third birthday

10. Meat is (occasionally) on the menu.

Many view the squirrel as an adorable herbivore that lives on a steady diet of acorns. In truth, squirrels are omnivores and will eat meat as it becomes available. In the spring and summer, squirrels will incorporate insects and stolen eggs into their diet. The scavengers will also occasionally eat road kill or dead birds they come across. In the winter, ice will sometimes prevent squirrels from reaching their cache of acorns, so who could blame them for getting a little creative? 

11. They make nests 

Squirrels are known for their dens in tree cavities, but sometimes they take a page from the birds’ handbook and build a nest. The clumpy looking nests are made with twigs, leaves, and moss. Sometimes, they'll add some flair with paper or candy wrappers. The inside is lined with soft grass and leaves to cushion their babies.

Despite their appearance, squirrel nests are actually quite sturdy. “From the ground, most leaf nests look small and flimsy, although a closer examination shows that they are by no means so frail as they appear,” says biologist Durward Allen. “On several occasions after a rain I evicted a squirrel and found its nest to be dry and warm.”

BONUS: You can send your friend a squirrel-gram.

If you have a friend about to turn 21, then you might want to warn them about the dangers of alcohol. Luckily Penn State has created an adorable PSA featuring squirrels in birthday hats. You can find the cautionary birthday e-card here (warning: there’s sound).

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Animals
15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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