Wednesday 24 April 2019

Feeding red squirrels peanuts may make natural diet a tough nut to crack

APRIL 1, 2019
by Shelley Hughes, University of York
New research suggests a population of red squirrels on the Lancashire coast may have developed weaker bites after snacking on peanuts.
The researchers suggest that the changes in bite strength of the squirrels in Formby could have been brought about by their softer diets, reducing their ability to gnaw through the tough-to-crack nuts they eat naturally – such as pine cone seeds, hazelnuts and beech nuts.
The findings have important implications for conservation efforts for red squirrels, which were once widespread across mainland Britain. They have suffered severe population decline from the 1920s onwards due to a loss of woodland as well as viruses and competition from grey squirrels.
Bite force
The researchers, from the University of York and National Museums Scotland, compared the lower jaws of red squirrels from surviving population pockets in the UK (which are mainly in northern areas and on offshore islands) as well as a sample from central Europe.
Their analysis has indicated that Formby squirrels, which are managed by the National Trust and the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, appear to have a less efficient temporalis muscle than all the other red squirrel populations. In rodents this muscle is used for rapid closing of the jaws to generate a powerful bite force.
Dr. Philip Cox from the Department of Archaeology and the Hull York Medical School at the University of York, said: "We found that the shape and function of the lower jaws of the Formby squirrels were different from all of the other red squirrel populations we looked at.
"They are the only group of red squirrels in the study that were given supplementary food and it is possible that the changes to their jaws have been brought about by diet.
"Many mammals- and especially rodents- have the capacity to evolve at very fast rates under changing environmental conditions. The changes to the gnawing ability of Formby squirrels could be an evolutionary response which has occurred over a few generations of squirrels or it could be an adaptive response which occurs over the lifetime of individual squirrels exposed to supplementary feeding."

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