Retention of social recognition after hibernation in Belding's ground squirrels

Anim Behav. 2000 Mar;59(3):491-499. doi: 10.1006/anbe.1999.1363.


The retention of social memory during long periods of separation, such as hibernation or migration, has not been well documented, despite evidence for long-term social relationships in migrating species or in long-lived sedentary species. We investigated the ability of captive Belding's ground squirrels, Spermophilus beldingi, to remember previously familiar individuals as well as littermates after 9 months of isolation. Before hibernation, young ground squirrels discriminated between odours of familiar and unfamiliar individuals, as shown by greater investigation of a novel individual's odour. The following spring, these yearlings did not respond differentially to odours of previously familiar and unfamiliar individuals, suggesting that memory for familiar conspecifics was lost during hibernation. In contrast, both female and male yearlings continued to discriminate between odours of littermates and previously familiar nonlittermates. Thus, recognition of close kin was maintained during prolonged social isolation, but recognition of familiar, unrelated individuals was not. If re-establishment of familiarity is not costly or if adults rarely interact with the same individuals in successive years, then selection may not favour retention of individual memories of particular conspecifics over the winter. Even though males rarely encounter kin after dispersal, yearling males did recognize their siblings, suggesting that the relative costs of maintaining kin-recognition abilities year-round may be low. Possible mechanisms underlying the formation and maintenance of individual and kin recognition are discussed. Copyright 2000 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.