One of the animals you’re most likely to see on the Nature Trail is the eastern gray squirrel. But even before you see one, you’ll probably hear one.
The eastern gray squirrel fulfills the next link in our food chain, as a primary consumer. Unlike plants, animals can’t produce their own food. So they consume! A primary consumer is any organism that eats a producer. And they're usually herbivores, animals that eat plants.
The eastern gray will eat tree bark, berries, some types of fungi, and seeds, including nuts – like the hickory nut from the shagbark hickory tree.
Eastern gray squirrels are known as scatter-hoarders, which means they hide their food in lots of different locations. And we call these little food stores, caches. The eastern gray will return to some of their food caches a few hours or a few days later, but others they won't return to for several months.
Sometimes they’ll dig up another squirrel’s cache, because they rely at least partially on smell to find their buried food. But eastern gray squirrels also rely on spatial memory, meaning they at least partially remember location and use landmarks to find their caches, especially when buried under snow.
Scatter-hoarding is a beneficial behavior for eastern gray squirrels, because if another consumer finds one of their food caches, they have hundreds more to rely on.
But it also turns out that this behavior is very beneficial to other species, like the shagbark hickory. At the last stop, we learned that hickories produce nuts, which are a very important and attractive food source for animals, because they’re high in protein and calories.
Eastern gray squirrels almost always hoard more than they actually eat, so some nuts are left behind. But because they’re buried, they’re less likely to be eaten by another consumer. And eastern grays often bury nuts far away from where they find them, under the hickory tree. In a new location, hickory nuts are more likely to germinate and grow into new trees.
In this way, eastern gray squirrels have a mutually beneficial relationship with shagbark hickory trees. The tree produces nutrient-rich nuts for the squirrel to consume. And by burying the nuts, the eastern gray helps the tree population grow.