Dr. Jamie Samson and Dr. Marta Manser from the Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental 1 Studies at the University of Zurich (UZH) studied colonies of Cape ground squirrels (Xerus inauris) in the wild at the Kalahari Research Center in South Africa. The diurnal rodents temporarily store their food reserves in several hiding places. As their habitat is very arid and sparsely vegetated, points of reference in the environment, such as trees or bushes, are few and far between. The UZH researchers have now discovered how the social rodents orient themselves to find their way back to their temporary food stashes. "The squirrels probably use the position of the sun as the most important cue to roughly adjust their direction of movement," explains Dr. Samson. The work was published onine on September 1, 2016 in Scientific Reports. The open-access article is titled “Use of the Sun As a Heading Indicator When Caching and Recovering in a wild Rodent.” The behavioral biologists gave the ground squirrels food to hide. The direction in which the rodents bolted with their spoils was recorded with the aid of GPS points. The striking thing was that the animals moved in an almost straight line either towards or away from the sun to find a suitable hiding place. Every time, the horizontal angle of their direction of movement deviated slightly from the direction of the sun. "Based on this movement pattern," interprets Samson, "we presume that Cape ground squirrels use the position of the sun at a particular time of day as a rule of thumb to find their bearings when searching for a place to hide their food." Next, the researchers set about determining whether the Cape ground squirrels also used the position of the sun to find their food stash again.
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