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What a squirrel sees and what it thinks it sees

November 8, 2015
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As squirrels have done for millennia, this one freezes on a branch behind leaves.

A few days ago, a squirrel that I was pursuing with my camera stopped in mid-dash and froze like a statue on the horizontal pipe of some gas works located inside of a chain link fence enclosure.

It occurred to me that the squirrel probably didn’t see its surroundings the same way that I did. What I saw as steel pipe work behind a chain link fence, probably appeared to the squirrel to match its mental template for “tree branch screened by leaves” — a safe place to hide if ever there was one, as far as a squirrel is concerned.

I imagined this was something like option number 10 from the “Hide” side of the simple programming governing its basic hiding and seeking behaviour.

Trying to see things through an animal’s eyes

It’s a question that people have long asked about animals — whether they be vertebrates or invertebrates: how do they see things?

Answering the question as science does — on the dissection table — hasn’t done an ounce of good for a single critter or insect but, in each case, it has apparently added to the storehouse of human knowledge.

Now, disassembling the parts of an animal’s eyes and measuring the lenses and counting the number and types of light-sensing rod and cone cells, may allow us to quantify the colours that it can see and how well that it can see them but this only gives us part of an answer — the degree to which the animal sees in black and white or in colour.

But it actually tells us squat about what an animal sees.

Seeing as we’re talking about squirrels

Science tells us that most squirrels have dichromatic colour vision. They can see the same colours that we can, except that they have red-green colour blindness, meaning that squirrels see red and green as the same colour.

That’s as far as science can go on the subject of squirrel eyesight — they see things more or less like colour-blind human beings.

But I would go farther and suggest that squirrels rarely ever see what human beings see because of the fundamental differences between human and squirrel brains.

In a nutshell, human beings can distinguish between colours but also between the natural and the human-made world. We can see rocks and cars and fields and buildings and parking lots and fences and trees — while squirrels can see rocks and fields and trees.

On what basis, I ask, could a squirrel see the top of a chain link fence as anything but a kind of branch, or a wooden utility pole as something other than a tree trunk, and so on?

Venturing a bit farther down the corridors of Sciuridaean thinking, what do you suppose that a squirrel is trying to be seen as when it freezes still in the middle of a road-slash-open field?

The Prairie boy in me can think of only a a few varieties of dark brown lump that can sit unmolested in an open field but I shall err on the side of propriety and say that the squirrel is probably pretending to be a clod of dirt.

Of course, in this instance, our lovable squirrel can only be said to be half-ways acting as it already seems to be a bit of a clod (and I mean that in the nicest possible way). Click the images to enlarge them.

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From → Fairview, Squirrel

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