Acrobatic squirrels learn to leap and land on tree branches without falling

Every day, there are acrobatic extravaganzas going on above our heads. Squirrels navigate remarkably complex and unpredictable environments as they leap from branch to branch, and mistakes can be fatal. These feats require a complex combination of evolved biomechanical adaptations and learned behaviors. Hunt et al. characterized the integration of these features in a series of experiments with free-living fox squirrels (see the Perspective by Adolph and Young). They found that the squirrels’ remarkable and consistent success was due to a combination of learned impulse generation when assessing the balance between distance and branch flexibility and the addition of innovative leaps and landings in the face of increasingly difficult challenges.

Science , abe5753, this issue p. [697][1]; see also abj6733, p. [620][2]

Arboreal animals often leap through complex canopies to travel and avoid predators. Their success at making split-second, potentially life-threatening decisions of biomechanical capability depends on their skillful use of acrobatic maneuvers and learning from past efforts. Here, we found that free-ranging fox squirrels ( Sciurus niger ) leaping across unfamiliar, simulated branches decided where to launch by balancing a trade-off between gap distance and branch-bending compliance. Squirrels quickly learned to modify impulse generation upon repeated leaps from unfamiliar, compliant beams. A repertoire of agile landing maneuvers enabled targeted leaping without falling. Unanticipated adaptive landing and leaping “parkour” behavior revealed an innovative solution for particularly challenging leaps. Squirrels deciding and learning how to launch and land demonstrates the synergistic roles of biomechanics and cognition in robust gap-crossing strategies.

[1]: /lookup/doi/10.1126/science.abe5753
[2]: /lookup/doi/10.1126/science.abj6733