Female Squirrels May Do More With Less Time Than Their Male Counterparts

But a researcher warns against putting too much of a "human spin" on it.
An arctic ground squirrel chilling with some seeds on a rock.
An arctic ground squirrel chilling with some seeds on a rock.
yykkaa via Getty Images

A new study comparing the activity levels of male and female arctic ground squirrels makes it hard to resist drawing comparisons with the often uneven workloads human men and women face. But the lead researcher says maybe squirrels aren’t actually the best metaphor for gender inequality in people.

In the study, which was a collaboration between Northern Arizona University and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, researchers put movement-tracking collars and light loggers (to detect whether they were above or below ground) on around 50 squirrels in Alaska, monitoring them from early May until late July.

They found that overall, female squirrels spent less time above ground than males, which makes sense because they feed and care for their young in underground burrows. But while males spent more time above ground in total, females were more active while they were up there.

“[Females] have this additional burden of caring for the young, which are below ground, but then they have to forage on the surface,” Williams said.

“Study Finds Female Squirrels Do All the Work While the Men Lie Around, Which Might Sound Familiar,” reads a NYMag headline, inspiring readers to wonder if squirrels could benefit from their own feminist movement. Quartz had a similar take, with a headline stating, “Scientists gave squirrels fitness trackers and found that males are lazy and females do all the work.”

But Cory T. Williams, lead researcher behind the study — published last week in Royal Society Open Science — says we should be cautious about imagining the ground squirrels as little bushy-tailed humans.

“I think sometimes the media likes to give everything this sort of human spin,” he told The Huffington Post. “And I think we have to be careful about doing that because obviously these animal systems are so different from human systems.”

Though the researchers weren’t able to determine what the males were doing with their extra time topside, they floated the idea in the paper that “The additional time spent above ground may be simply to loaf/bask in the sun.”

But tempting as it is to start thinking of your good-for-nothing ex as a loafing ground squirrel, Williams stresses that the dynamics are just totally different. For one thing, male squirrels don’t contribute to parenting in any way, shape or form, and that’s probably a good thing, given their predilection for occasionally killing their offspring.

He also added that while the paper notes that it’s possible males are enjoying the extra warmth above ground, researchers still don’t know for sure exactly what the dudes are doing. It may also be that they’re simply foraging less efficiently or spending more time looking for predators.

That said, if a petition or something comes around for female squirrel liberation, sign us on.

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