A Question About Squirrels (or “Learn to Learn from Each Other”)

Posted: July 11, 2013 in Uncategorized
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By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

squirrel1How have squirrels survived as a species?

Walk down a forest trail and nature will envelop you. You’ll hear life all around, but beyond the vegetation and insects, much of the life remains out of sight. Sometimes an animal as large as a deer can be within steps and you’ll never know it was there.

Then there are squirrels.

Squirrels are the loud, drunk uncles of the animal kingdom. They bounce around, crash through leaves, stomp on branches, then run up trees and stop midway to shake their tails just in case you weren’t already aware of their presence. I’ve seen more discretion from bachelorette parties cruising the Mag Mile in a stretch limo.

How can an animal survive when it is A) so low on the food chain, and B) so happy to announce its whereabouts? Think of all the things that prey on squirrels: coyotes, hawks, children with BB guns.

So, I ask again, how have squirrels survived?

Partly, my question is a product of my talent for odd, random thoughts. But the other part is that I have always been fascinated by science. At its root, this squirrel question is about science: animal behavior (ethology). There has to be an answer to my question: maybe it has to do with coloration and how squirrels are naturally camouflaged; maybe squirrels are more evasive than I’m giving them credit for; maybe they’ve developed weapons technology.

squirrel superman

Does this explain how squirrels have survived?

For the first several years I worked at Robert Morris University, rather than Google search my random questions, I would spin my desk chair 180 degrees and ask my dear colleague Dr. Virginia Pezalla, who taught science at RMU and was an animal behavior expert.

Dr. Pezalla always happily answered my questions and it would often lead us to discuss that topic and more as we (unintentionally) eschewed work as we talked. Science aside, I always enjoyed talking to her. She was so nice, incredibly knowledgeable, and deceptively funny.

Though we sat next to each other in the office, it took awhile for us to break the ice and get to know each other. However, once she got to know me, she was well aware of my odd thinking and sense of humor. Given some of the strange science questions I threw at her, I’m sure she wouldn’t have been shocked to have me ask her about how squirrels are surviving. For example, I also asked her, “What are these ‘zombie ants’ I’ve been reading about? Are they real?,” and, “What other animals have the potential to rise to human-level intelligence? Could that happen while humans are still here?”

Some people may have simply responded, “Don’t you have papers to grade or something?” Dr. Pezalla, on the other hand, provided legitimate answers. (The zombie ants exist – it has to do with these mold spores that infect them; it’s incredibly fascinating. And she said humans, eventually, will lose their stranglehold on the Earth, and something else will rise to dominance. [I was disappointed with that answer. I was really hoping she’d say that dolphins are going to eventually be our uber-intelligent cohabitants and that they will open cities in the oceans we can visit.])

Dr. Pezalla passed away late last year, and I miss having her around, and not just as someone to answer my silly questions. But my relationship with her is one example of how fortunate I am to have the colleagues that I do. I am surrounded by great people who are extremely knowledgeable about all sorts of subjects. There are the “academic” subjects like psychology, philosophy, history, science. Then, additionally, my colleagues know about all kinds of other stuff: rap/hip-hop, camping, folk music, Bikram yoga, local brew pubs, thrifting, baking…the list could go on endlessly. Every day I come to work, I get to learn something new and interesting from my colleagues.

A new academic quarter begins next week at RMU. During the first week, two of my classes will be sharing with their classmates what topics they are “experts” on. For this activity, I define an “expertise” as anything a student knows extremely well, even if it’s not something deemed academic. It can be a movie, a book, a TV show, a sport – whatever. It is a chance for us to learn about each other and learn from each other. Just like I learn from my colleagues, my students always know all kinds of things that I don’t and I get to learn from them as well. I’ve done this particular activity for years, and I am no longer surprised by the great variety of amazing things my students know about.

As we enter a new quarter, it’s something I need to remind myself, and that I hope to remind all of the faculty and students about as well – learning isn’t a one way street from professor to student. We are all able to learn from each other. Students should learn from the professor, the professor from the students, and the students from other students. If we open ourselves up to that possibility, we will end the quarter in 10 weeks having learned way more than just the topics on each course syllabus.

We may even learn how those loud-ass squirrels have managed to survive.


  1. Phil Cerza says:

    LOL they are quite annoying those damn squirrels!

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