Lucia Jacobs, a professor in the Psychology Department and the Helen Wills Institute of Neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley, will spend part of her time as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study exploring squirrel brains. Jacobs is particularly interested in how the animals cache and retrieve their food and what happens in the memory-associated hippocampus during that process.
“Hippocampal plasticity is critical for human memory,” she says, “so there could be something interesting to learn there from squirrels.”
GAZETTE: How did you get interested in studying squirrels?
JACOBS: Squirrels have always fascinated me; I especially remember racing every Easter morning to get to the chocolate eggs before the squirrels did. But I became interested scientifically in their foraging behavior when I started graduate school at Princeton. I was interested in behavioral ecology and how animals make foraging decisions, and gray squirrel foraging was particularly complex because of their food-caching decisions. Initially, I was going to compare squirrels that stored food in different spatial patterns — clumped versus scattered — but I ended up focusing only on the gray squirrel, the scatter-hoarding species. The first thing I did was show that squirrels remember where they bury their nuts. That got me interested in memory — the hippocampus and how spatial cognition is adapted to a species’ environment — a question I am still pursuing.
GAZETTE: What will your Radcliffe work involve?
JACOBS: I am part of a multi-university research initiative that is a collaboration between engineers and biologists to, among other things, look at the problem of spatial cognition in squirrels from a developmental point of view by looking at orphaned baby squirrels. We study human developmental cognition as a way of understanding the adult: Where does language come from? Where does math come from? So, with these baby squirrels we can understand spatial cognition and caching decisions by learning how they develop. In adults, the behavior is rational. They know exactly what they are doing; it’s very precise. The question is how much of that did they come with? We really don’t know. It’s a very complicated thing they have to do when they cache and then retrieve the nuts they’ve hidden.