- The Washington Times - Monday, December 11, 2006

CHICAGO (AP) — Squirrels hit the genetic lottery with their chubby cheeks and bushy tails. It’s hard to imagine picnickers tossing peanuts and cookies at the rodents if they looked like rats.

But good looks alone don’t get you through Chicago winters. Nor do they help negotiate a treacherous landscape of hungry cats, cars and metal traps.

So how do they do it? And why do they search, huddle, dart, and sometimes forget where they hid their nuts?

Joel Brown aims to find out.

“We’re trying to get a glimpse of what your life is like if you are a city squirrel,” said Mr. Brown, a biologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

He and a team of students will trap squirrels in Chicago and its suburbs this winter, taking skin samples for DNA analysis. They’ll strap collars on them and watch what they do. And they’ll attach threads to acorns and hazelnuts, then see where the squirrels take them and when they eat them.

“Our appreciation is least in our own back yard,” said Mr. Brown, who is part of a small brethren of scientists around the country who have made it their business to figure out how squirrels go about theirs.

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