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Monday, December 19, 2011

Early Intervention and Head Start Work--Even The Squirrels Know It

Anyone involved in education knows the value of Early Intervention Programs for children--the sooner kids who have intellectual disabilities or physical disabilities get help, the better the outcome.  Well it seems the squirrels in Tokyo need their own 'early intervention, squirrel style.' 

Yes, it seems there are squirrels in Tokyo who cannot crack open walnuts.  What? A squirrel who can't crack open a nut?  Yep!  Wildlife researcher, Noriko Tamura, with the Tama Forest Science Garden, Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute observed that some Japanese squirrels can't eat walnuts because they failed 'Nut Cracking 101.'  Actually he says they just never learned how to crack the tough outer shells of the hard nuts so they don't eat them.  Instead they subsist on the seeds.

It seems that a squirrel who has never learned how to crack one of these 'tough nuts' using trial and error can't figure out how to do it on his own.  Tamura noted that some squirrels in the main island forests of Honshu and Shikoku eat the seeds of the nuts and will carry the seeds for very long distances just to store them in their nests but not the nuts.  They don't collect the nuts because they can't figure out how to crack them open. 

Tamura decided to compare squirrel behavior around Tokyo's Mount Takao where there are a lot of nuts ... (walnuts that is) to the squirrels who lived near Mount Fuji where there are few nuts. 

The Mount Takao squirrels cut the walnuts open in under ten minutes by biting along the line on the surface.  But only 2 of the 25 squirrels from Mount Fuji could open the nuts.  The two who could open the nuts were both adult males. 

So Tamura experimented with squirrels that had never seen nuts.  Initially the poor squirrels couldn't break into the tough nuts, but when he put them with other adults who could open the nuts, the squirrels who were under 18 months old learned how to crack open the nuts.  The squirrels over the age of two could not learn the skill. 

Sound familiar?  Early learning, whether in squirrels or humans is critical.  Skills need to be learned and reinforced at a young age.  Modeling by others helps reinforce skills. 

“Squirrels seem to learn how to cut walnuts through watching adult squirrels and trying and failing repeatedly," Tamura said. "But that’s something they can do only while they are still young.”

So the next time you hear about funding for Early Intervention Programs being cut, or Project Head Start, or a vote against full day Kindergarten classes REMEMBER THE SQUIRRELS!

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