Flying squirrels use a mortise-tenon structure to fix nuts on understory twigs

Squirrels of temperate zones commonly store nuts or seeds under leaf litter, in hollow logs, or even in holes in the ground; however, in the humid rainforests of Jianfengling in Hainan, South China, we show that some flying squirrels cache elliptical or oblate nuts by hanging them securely in vegetation. These small flying squirrels were identified as Hylopetes phayrei electilis (G. M. Allen, 1925) and Hylopetes alboniger (Hodgson, 1870), in video clips captured of their behavior around focal nuts. Squirrels chewed grooves encircling ellipsoid nuts or distributed on the bottoms of oblate nuts, and then used these grooves to fix nuts tightly between small twigs 0.1–0.6 cm in diameter that were connected at angles of 25–40°. The grooves carved on the nuts (concave structure) connected with Y-shaped twigs (convex structure) and thus firmly affixed the nuts to the plant in a way similar to a mortise-tenon joint used in architecture and carpentry. Cache sites were on small plants located 10–25 m away from the closest potentially nut-producing tree, a behavior that likely reduces the discovery and consumption of the nuts by other animals. The adaptive squirrel behavior that shapes and fits nuts between twigs seems to be directed at providing more secure storage that increases food supply during dry periods in a humid tropical rainforest. In addition to providing such benefits for the squirrels, we suggest that this behavior also impacts the distribution of tree species in the forest.

Han Xu, Lian Xia, John R Spence, Mingxian Lin, Chunyang Lu, Yanpeng Li, Jie Chen, Tushou Luo, Yide Li, Suqin Fang