What is that in your mouth?

It’s hot!  Ok, I’ve been in hotter places, but it’s humid, too.  Now people will say that wet heat is hotter than dry heat and you know what?  They’re right!!  Ugh.  I went running through Freedom Park yesterday.  At one point I thought it was raining, but then I realized that it was just me dripping in front of my own eyes.

Anyway, as a result of the humidity, it wasn’t a very pleasant run.  I got into a shady spot along the greenway and stopped to walk and wipe my face a bit and that’s when I saw it.  It was just an Eastern Gray Squirrel bounding over to a tree.  There was something funny about it, though.  I wiped my eyes again and moved closer.  It did what squirrels do; it started to climb a tree and positioned itself on the trunk on the opposite side from where I stood.  As I slowly walked around the tree, I got a glimpse of the thing that initially made me look at the squirrel.  It was a HUGE mushroom in the squirrel’s mouth.  It really was enormous.  The cap of the mushroom was as large as the squirrel’s upper body.  As a result, the squirrel’s path up the tree was a little more circuitous than I normally see.

Aside from marveling at the size of the ‘shroom that the squirrel was carrying, I was caught off guard by the fact that it was a squirrel with a mushroom in the first place.  It’s not a food I usually associate with squirrels.  As a result, I did what I normally do when confronted with these questions:  check the literature!

One study done in southeastern Ohio found that fungi were one of the top foods of squirrels.  “The important foods in decreasing order of occurrence were hickory nuts, beechnuts, acorns, fungi, black walnuts, plant leaves…”  It goes on a bit.  Plant and fungal material made up about 85% of the total diet of the squirrels in this study.

Nixon, C.M., D.M. Worley and M.W. McClain.  1968.  Food habits of squirrels in southeast Ohio.  Journal of Wildlife Management 32:  294-305. 

Now I don’t generally think of fungi as being such a fantastic food source.  I mean, they can be wonderful in some things (like chanterelles in an omelette), but you don’t hear people suggesting you get your daily supply of fungus in your diet.  Well, luckily, in Europe there are some researchers who examined the utility of mushroom in the diet of squirrels.  Aside from having a caloric value equal to a lot of plant material, fungi do have another function that I hadn’t considered.  Fungi can be stored!  A squirrel can gather up a fungus and hide it for use later!  Red squirrels in Europe apparently use them as a valuable food source in the winter when other plant material is harder to get.

Gronwall, O. and A. Pehrson.  1984.  Nutrient content in fungi as a primary food of the red squirrel Sciurus vulgaris L.  Oecologia 64:  230-231.  

So what did squirrel do with its mushroom?  I have no idea!  I saw it go up into the tree.  Maybe it got stored.  Maybe it got eaten.   Maybe sauteed with onions (a personal favorite).  The whole experience, though, has put me on guard for squirrel watching.  They look so innocent in their squirrel positions picking up acorns, but secretly they’re sitting on their haunches scanning for shiitake!




About thomasbiology

I'm an Associate Professor of Biology at Queens University of Charlotte with a background in animal behavior with an emphasis in bird song. I've got two secret goals with this blog (well, since I'm sharing them, they're not so secret): 1. To encourage people to look at the natural world around them- not just as a hiking destination, but to notice all the little things moving around them all the time; and 2. To show some of the science that relates to these little things moving around. There's some really fascinating research out there that so few people get to see.
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