Tail Flagging in California Ground Squirrels is Predictive of Attention Shifts

Melody Y. Chen

Abstract

Tail flagging is associated with conflict, frustration, and intention to move.  Tree-squirrel progenitors of ground squirrels used their tails during attention shift, which may have led to the evolution of snake-directed tail flagging in California ground squirrels (Spermophilus beecheyi).  It  is possible that these squirrels may still flag their tails when they make the decision to change attention.  In this study, we examine whether tail flagging of squirrels is associated with shifts in attention as indicated by the turning of the head, maintaining the original stereotypical function of tail flagging.  We conducted forty-one field trials on wild California ground squirrels in which attention shifts were stimulated by the introduction of a tethered rattlesnake.   The percentage of tail flags that occurred before, during, and after attention shifts was measured.  The percentage of tail flagging bouts that occurred before attention shifts were significantly greater than both those that occurred during and after attention shifts.  Thus, the hypothesis that tail flagging predicts attention shifts is supported.

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