Skip to main content

Do Squirrels Experience Grief?

Kristie Leong M.D. is a family practitioner who believes in the power of nutrition and a healthy lifestyle to prevent and fight illness.

Do squirrels mourn their dead? It's unfortunate that we can't look into the minds of these animals and know whether they grieve and how the death of other squirrels affects them. Scientists don't know as much as they'd like to know about whether squirrels mourn when they lose another squirrel.

However, squirrels are social animals and form strong bonds with other squirrels. They communicate through vocalizations and body language, and use complex communication to find mates, establish territory, warn of predators, and defend against them when necessary.

Squirrels Communicate With Each Other

Squirrels also use various sounds, including chirps, barks, and squeaks, to convey information. They use these sounds to warn each other of danger, convey distress, indicate the location of food, and communicate with other squirrels. For example, they flick their tail when they want another squirrel to go away.

And they are intelligent too. People with squirrels as pets can train them to do tasks like come when they are called or ring a bell.

Squirrels Have Personality

A study published in Animal Behavior found squirrels have human-like personality characteristics. Some are bold and aggressive while others are shyer and passive. But whether squirrels feel complex emotions like grief is unclear.

There's no way to know what's going on in their head when they experience the loss of another squirrel. But such personality characteristics suggest squirrels have emotional lives,

In humans, a portion of the brain called the limbic system becomes more active when humans experience loss or grief. The limbic system is involved in processing emotions and threats from the environment. Squirrels also have a developed limbic system, as it helps them avoid and react to dangerous situations.

Do They Feel Grief and Sadness?

Although it's unclear whether squirrels feel grief or sadness, squirrels have been known to move the body of another dead squirrel or stay with the body of a fellow dead squirrel.

In this situation, squirrels display similar behaviors—sitting upright, looking distressed, and making repeated grooming movements.

Whether these mannerisms are innate and instinctual, learned, or expressions of fear, grief, or another emotion is unclear.

Although we might interpret this as sadness or empathy toward another squirrel, there's no way to know what internal experience a squirrel has when they lose another squirrel.

Squirrels Form Strong Bonds

It appears squirrels form strong bonds with other squirrels. What's unclear is how much is an emotional bond and how much is related to survival instinct. Staying close to other squirrels may offer survival benefits.

Despite their social behavior, some squirrels, such as tree squirrels, live a mostly solitary life and don't form strong bonds with other squirrels. So, different types of squirrels may experience loss differently than others.

Lessons From Other Animal Species

Scientists believe elephants mourn their dead and experience signs of grief. As complex as these emotions are, some animals appear capable of experiencing grief. This may also apply to squirrels.

Though humans can't extrapolate their own feelings of grief and loss to what animals feel with a loss of life, many animal species bond with each other and with humans.

It may be that some affection exists within the hearts of man and beast alike and we shouldn't assume that animals, including squirrels, don't experience grief when they lose a family member. It's questionable whether science will ever prove or disprove this.

Final Thoughts

Do squirrels mourn their dead? With the inability to peek into the minds of squirrels or understand what their gestures and mannerisms mean, we can't say with certainty that squirrels grieve or mourn their dead.

It's doubtful that squirrels have brains advanced enough to experience the range of emotions that humans do, but they may face grief and loss in their own way. Yet, we must be aware of the emotions of animals and respect them in the same way we do our own. This means recognizing when they are suffering and protecting their habitats.

References

  • Aliperti JR, Davis BE, Fangue NA, Todgham AE, Van Vuren DH. Bridging animal personality with space use and resource use in a free-ranging population of an asocial ground squirrel. Animal Behaviour. 2021;180:291-306. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2021.07.019
  • "Squirrels have human-like personality traits, says study." 13 Sept. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/sep/13/squirrels-human-like-personality-traits-study.
  • "Understanding Grief Brain | Psych Central." https://psychcentral.com/lib/your-health-and-grief.
  • "Quirky Squirrel Behaviors You Can See This Fall - Animals." 10 Oct. 2017, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/squirrel-behavior-cache-fall-video-spd.
  • "Study uncovers surprising things about squirrels." 12 Apr. 2018, https://phys.org/news/2018-04-uncovers-squirrels.html.
  • "Personality Matters, Even for Squirrels | UC Davis." 10 Sept. 2021, https://www.ucdavis.edu/curiosity/news/personality-matters-even-squirrels-0.