When squirrels grow up, they often face the tough choice of staying at or near the same location where they were born or moving on to bigger and better places. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always result in ‘bigger and better’ for some squirrels, and according to new research published just this past week in the journal Ecology Letters, the squirrel’s gender may play a significant role in those odds.
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Both male and female squirrels can be subjected to the aforementioned life choice, and from what we can gather, male squirrels benefit the most from moving away from their families and starting new lives. This was the apparent result of more than 30 years’ worth of data collected on a North American red squirrel population residing in Yukon, Canada.
"The benefits to living in a different population than you were born are sex-dependent," says study lead author April Martinig. "Males benefit from moving away, whereas females do not. We also found that the decision to move away or stay at home has an impact on offspring."
So why the polarizing effects on different squirrel sexes? As it turns out, nature stacks the odds in the venturing male squirrels’ favor. Not only do males appear to live longer than females who also venture far from home, but males also succeed at producing more offspring than their female counterparts.
Males allegedly find this ‘moving out’ process easier because there’s substantially less sibling rivalry and competing with those very same siblings for food, water, and mates. Furthermore, female squirrels appear to favor newcomer males over the locals, and this increases the wandering males’ chances of finding a mate.
Many would assume that the same would be true for the females that venture far from home, but the opposite appears to be true. Unlike male squirrels, females rely on their families for support, such as gathering food. Moreover, these same female squirrels didn’t appear to demonstrate any increased mating success as the wandering males did.
"Squirrels live in a world where there are only so many 'empty apartments' to live in," Martinig added. "Sometimes one sibling is allowed to stay at home—so everyone else must go. If there are no vacancies nearby, squirrels then have no choice but to move further away. This is what females face: losing the benefits of having family nearby."
Albeit intriguing, future research will aim to better understand what urges these critters to move away from home and how these choices impact the survival of populations. The findings could have significant implications for predicting population models, and perhaps even conservation when and if the time comes.