Does caching strategy vary with microclimate in endangered Mt. Graham red squirrels?
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Food hoarding is a common behavior used by a variety of animals to cope with periods of low food availability. At the retreating edge of species’ distribution, the stressful environment and unfavourable climate conditions may impose severe costs on hoarding behavior. Since relict populations are hotspots for evolution and adaptation, and considering that food hoarding behavior has a strong evolutionary basis, we decided to evaluate the occurrence of behavioral variability in the amount of food cached by the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel (Tamiasciurus fremonti grahamensis). We tested the variation in cache size in response to microclimate, soil relief, vegetation, food availability and squirrel sex. The number of pits excavated by squirrels to cache cones was used as a proxy of cache size and was affected by mountain slope aspect and density of trees. More pits were excavated in the northeast facing slopes. The density of trees negatively affects the cache volume on southwest slopes, but not on northeast slopes. The sex of the resident squirrel also affects the number of pits in the squirrel midden, with males excavating 47% more pits than females. Males and females also presented different responses to the mountain slope aspect, with females excavating more pits on northeastern slopes than on southwestern slopes, whereas male cache size did not vary with the slope aspect. Finally, the squirrel’s caching behavior did not vary in response to midden microclimate variation, a result with possible implications for the survival of the Mt Graham red squirrels, given the predicted temperature increases in the region due to climate change.