Naturalists and casual observers alike have been struck by the special relationship between squirrels and acorns. As ecologists, though, we cannot observe these energetic mammals scurrying up and down oak trees and eating and burying acorns without wondering about their complex relationship with the trees. Are squirrels dispersers and planters of oak forests or pesky seed predators? The answer is not a simple one. Gray squirrels may devour many acorns, but by storing and failing to recover up to 74 percent of them (as they do when seeds are abundant), these arboreal rodents can also aid regeneration and dispersal of the oaks.
Their destructive powers are well documented. According to one 1908 report, squirrels destroyed tens of thousands of fallen acorns from an oak stand on the University of Indiana campus. A professor there estimated that each of the large white oaks had produced between two and eight thousand acorns, but within weeks of seed maturity hardly an acorn could be found among the fallen leaves.
Deer, turkeys, wild pigs, and bears also feed heavily on acorns, but do not store them, and are therefore of no benefit to the trees. Flying squirrels, chipmunks, and mice are also unlikely to promote tree dispersal, as they often store seeds in tree cavities and underground burrows. Only tree squirrels -- whose behavior of caching below the leaf litter often promotes successful germination of acorns -- and perhaps blue jays, important long-distance dispersers (see Natural History, October 1986), seem to help oaks spread and reproduce.
Early in our study, we observed one particularly puzzling behavior pattern. Squirrels would pry off the caps of acorns, bite through the shells to get at the nutritious inner kernels, and then discard them half eaten. Moments later, they would seize another acorn and repeat the routine. The ground under the towering oaks was littered with thousands of half-eaten acorns, each one bitten only from the top. Why would any animal waste so much time and energy and risk exposure to such predators as red-tailed hawks only to leave a large part of each acorn uneaten? Gray squirrels are generally opportunistic in their feeding habits, but at other times they are picky. They often eat a variety of budding leaves, flowers, and spring twigs, and even the pupae of giant silk moths, carrion, a bird's egg or two -- and, rarely, nestling chicks. During the autumn and winter months, however, their main diet consists of nuts and seeds, and at this time squirrels readily distinguish between various species, and even parts, of acorns. Active throughout the year, the squirrels store large quantities of seeds and nuts to see them through the winter. These caches usually include acorns of some of the thirty-two oak species that grow in the squirrel's range in eastern North America.
An oak seed, or acorn (really a fruit), consists of an outer shell enclosing two young, energy-rich seed leaves (or cotyledons) that meet to surround a tiny embryo at the apex, or tip. To a squirrel, the acorn is a package of energy (between five and twenty kilocalories) that can be easily opened and eaten in less than half the time needed for other, harder nuts or stored for use up to ten months later.
Not all acorns are the same. The two major groups of oaks -- red and white -- have seeds that differ generally in chemical makeup. Red oak acorns are rich in fats (18 to 25 percent of dry weight) but are laced with 6 to 10 percent tannins (the bitter-tasting, water-soluble compounds used to tan hides). White oak acorns are less fatty (5 to 10 percent) and lower in tannins (less than 2 percent). The two groups of trees also differ in when they germinate. Red oak acorns lie dormant in winter and sprout in spring; white oak seeds usually sprout soon after falling to the ground in autumn.
We knew that more fat enhances the seeds' energy value, but we also suspected that high tannin levels make them less palatable and digestible to squirrels. …