Squirrels can be left or right pawed, but the ambidextrous ones are smartest

Tim Baker

Squirrels can be left-or right-pawed, according to new research.

For humans, having a dominant hand - known as being lateralised - is believed to allow for more efficient brain function.

But in squirrels it has proven to be more of a hindrance than a help, with ambidextrous rodents appearing more adept at learning new skills.

The study was run by the University of Exeter, where scientists put peanuts in see-through tubes and watched to see how the squirrels got them out

They could not use their faces as they normally would because the holes were deliberately made too small.

Being ambidextrous is actually better for a squirrel (Jeremy Selwyn)

Dr Lisa Leaver, programme director of University of Exeter's animal behaviour course and study author, said: “We were measuring how long it took them to stop using their faces and to start using their paws to reach into the tube.

"And once they started doing that, we measured which paws they were using - left or right."

After studying a total of 30 squirrels - 12 of which provided robust data - scientists published the research in the Learning and Behaviour journal.

While some of the animals showed ambidexterity by using both their paws to access the nuts, others strongly favour one side.

The team then measured how quickly squirrels learned the task and how strongly they favoured a particular paw, assessing both learning and laterality.

Results showed that squirrels which strongly favoured a particular side did less well on a learning task.

The scientists used food to study the little animals (Pixabay)

Dr Leaver said: "We found that the squirrels who had stronger tendencies to use either their left or their right paws rather than being ambidextrous were the ones who didn't perform as well on the tasks.

"So they didn't learn as quickly, they didn't earn as thoroughly as the ones who were more ambidextrous."

She said the findings were in line with these previous mammal studies which suggest "strong lateralisation is linked to poor cognitive performance" but added more research is need to "understand the complex relationship" between the two.

Dr Leaver addeed: “It has been suggested that being strongly lateralised makes brains more efficient, with each hemisphere focusing on different tasks.

"This could help animals survive, which would explain the evolution of laterality across the animal kingdom.

"In fish and birds, there is evidence that being strongly lateralised is linked to better cognitive performance (brain function).

"However, limited data from studies of mammals suggest a weak or even negative relationship."