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Emergency Research Day: What The Hell Are Those Squirrels Doing?!

Regular readers of dy know that Research Day falls on the 15th of each month. But this one simply couldn't wait.

This very curious photograph was recently brought to my attention (warning: possibly not safe for work, especially if your boss is a furry or a golden retriever), which appears to show underage squirrels engaged in oral sex. (That pretty much ensures that my referral logs will be filled with "http://www.google.com/search?q=underage+squirrels+engaged+in+oral+sex" for the foreseeable future...) Needless to say, encountering this scant months after seeing Janet Jackson's nipple left me wondering what kind of cesspool of depravity the world has become.

The picture was posted on a discussion site I frequent. No one seemed to know what it was, beyond a great inspiration for jokes about "nuts". The only speculation came from a poster who said that male squirrels will bite one another in the testicles as a show of dominance, but offered neither citation nor corroborations.

Enter Research Day.

Searching Google I could find no reliable evidence supporting the "testicle biting" hypothesis, except for a mention of the practice on deadsquirrel.com, the "Official homepage of the Squirrel Defamation League" (not making this up). Seeking a slightly less biased opinion, I forwarded the photo to Andrew B Carey, Ph.D of the Pacific Northwest Research Station. I asked if the rumors of wanton genital mastication were true, or, if not, if he could explain what in the hell was going on in this photo.

To my amazement, Dr. Carey did not forward my email to the authorities, despite the presence of the words "squirrels" and "oral sex" in a single sentence. Instead, he sent me back a very thorough reply. Here it is:

Rural lore in the Appalachian states has it that red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) castrate their competitors, the larger eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis); no reliable observations of that have been documented and one scientist proffered the explanation that wounds caused by warble fly larvae in the inguinal region may have prompted speculation about castration. I don't know of any other reports of attempted castration.

What it looks like to me in the picture is that there are some young squirrels in captivity and one is exhibiting an innate suckling behavior and just happened to find another's genitals.

Some further light can be shed on this by realizing that many mammals have scent glands in the vicinity of the genitals and that sniffing and licking of these areas is common social behavior that may or may not be sexual in nature, depending on the circumstance. But such behavior is typically quite active, with both individuals alert and showing physiological arousal or tension, while the squirrels in this picture seem asleep.

Ah yes, the old "it's innate suckling behavior" defense. I'm sure we've all used that one from time to time.

Well, I'm going to believe it, because the whole "biting testicles to assert dominance" thing gives me THE SHIVERS. Thank goodness we human males have the good sense to assert dominance through drunken fistfights at keggers and the purchase of Humvees.

Research Day Bonus!: "Inguinal" means " Of, relating to, or located in the groin." Twenty points if you can work that into a casual conversation today.

A big thanks to Dr. Carey for deigning to answer my panicky and admittedly bizarre query.

Update: Mystery solved! Junior sleuth Adam Forbes managed to trace the photo back it's source at the Squirrel Rescue webpage. He even contacted the staff of the organization and got the straight dope from one Mary Cummins:

That is a photo of two orphaned baby squirrels exhibiting suckling behavior. Orphaned baby squirrels frequently will suckle on the nose, ears, elbows, thumb nub, genitals, stomach of other babies or even themselves. They will also suckle on stuffed animals, a towel, just about anything. I tried to make a pacifier for them so they wouldn't suckle each other but nothing's like the real thing I suppose. They can sometimes suckle so much that they give each other hickeys and get themselves very raw.

Attached is a pic of some diapers that another rehabber made in order to stop suckling.

Great work, Adam!

Posted on April 12, 2004 to Research Day


I always chew on the balls of people in order to prove my dominance.

Posted by: i on April 13, 2004 4:18 PM

Oh my god! What I want to know is what the blue nipple thing hanging over them is?!? No wonder there's excessively odd sucking behavior going on...

Posted by: Coralie on April 13, 2004 6:01 PM

Having had an inguinal hernia operated on recently, I find it quite easily to work it in.
It is also useful in Tai Chi in describing how the hips and lower body move in relation to one another... .

Posted by: Jon on April 13, 2004 7:57 PM

Fortunately, as a medical student I get to use all kinds of fun words every day, including "inguinal," "gyrus," and "telangiectasia." Hopefully I won't run into any patients who revert to establishing dominance via the squirrel testes-biting method.

Posted by: Liz on April 14, 2004 6:12 AM

I'm always suspicious of/creeped out by cute or funny photos of animals where their eyes are closed. I was told by a semi-reliable source that some photographers use dead animals for such shots because they are, you know, more cooperative.

Posted by: Shannon on April 14, 2004 7:39 AM

And females of our species assert dominance by emotionally torturing a victim until she develops an eating disorder.

Posted by: Suzyn on April 14, 2004 7:39 AM

It could be a PR stunt for that new band, you know "Squirrel Nut Lickers".

Sorry it's horrible but it had to be said.

Posted by: chris on April 14, 2004 7:46 AM

oh, so THAT'S what the squirrels do on my roof in the wee hours! Thanks for clearing that up. Although I don't think they have any blue, furry, nipple-baring muppets up there with them. And if they do, I bet I could get money from the Enquirer for the story.

Posted by: Tazja on April 14, 2004 9:08 AM

Squirrel Romper Room Preschool Report Card

[x] Plays Well With Others
[x] Demonstrates Effective use of Claws
[?] Finds Nuts Quickly

[x] If this box is checked a conference is needed for the following reason: __discuss what kind of nuts are used at home for practice__

Posted by: Brian on April 14, 2004 11:57 AM

I have a rather boring explanation. I'm guessing these are two young squirrels someone has rescued, and they are using the furry nipple-bearing object as a surrogate feeder. During a post-prandial nap, one youngster has returned to the snack bar and has made a tragic (but decidedly not dominant or sexual) mistake in navigation. The poor thing is going to be wrecked when his best man gets ahold of this baby picture and shows it at his wedding reception...

Posted by: Adam on April 14, 2004 12:43 PM

does this constitute the launch of cheap-dates.com?

Posted by: greg.org on April 14, 2004 1:44 PM

Since leave Seattle to pursue my veterinary dreams, I have learned many intimate details about the lives of food animals (for example, to make a cow pee for collecting a urine specimen, just tickle its vulva (not only is it not illegal, I get graded on it)). And, I now know that male cattle (aka Bulls), if removed from their mothers, can give each other quite nasty wounds by just this sort of surrogate suckling behaviour. I also know that suctorial means adapted for sucking.

Posted by: matthew on April 14, 2004 2:14 PM

"just tickle its vulva (not only is it not illegal, I get graded on it)"

Sometimes I really miss my college days. Pledge week was truely a formative time in my life.

Posted by: chris on April 15, 2004 7:07 AM

We have a cat that exhibits this "innate suckling behavior" AT THREE IN THE MORNING on any cotton garment we happen to wear to bed.

We thought the cat would grow out of it as he became an adult, but 18 months following his birth, he's still at it. It's unpleasant enough that he creates wet spots on the sleave of my t-shirt, but he also insists on kneading any close-by exposed flesh with his claws as he's suckling. This, combined with his happy rumblings, which closely resemble an outboard boat motor in both timbre and volume, serve to wake both me and my wife nightly at this ungodly hour.

Repeated dumpings off the bed [push-THUMP]eventually give him the idea that this is not appreciated, but the next night, he's up and at it again. Locking him out only serves to change the means by which he wakes us: yowling on the other side of the door rather than digging into my flesh. The former would be preferred, except that it lasts all night, while we can stop the latter with three to five [push-THUMP] sequences.

Posted by: Kous on April 15, 2004 9:09 AM

Wow, only two days and you ARE the number one search return for "underage squirrels engaged in oral sex" on Google.

The number two result is a bit disturbing but to each his own I guess.

Posted by: Duane on April 15, 2004 10:45 AM

I'm surprised it took all of two days. I'm quite certain DY should be the Premiere source for all your "underage squirrels engaged in oral sex" needs.

Do people really have those needs?
Man NOW i'm worried...

Posted by: chris on April 15, 2004 12:36 PM

The other one is clearly an inflatable squirrel.

Posted by: Frank on April 15, 2004 1:28 PM

After a while it becomes hard to tell inflatable from real.......So i'm told.........

Posted by: Chris on April 15, 2004 8:47 PM

Okay, having worked as a volunteer for wildlife rehabilitation, specializing in squirrels (I'm SO not kidding), I've seen quite a bit of this behavior.

I assure you, it really is them just trying to suckle. Unfortunately the ones who tend to do this get really compulsive about it (they are, after all, infant mammals who've been through extreme trauma) and cause each other serious damage. (I'll spare you gory details.)

You can't raise a solitary squirrel and expect it to function around others when it grows up and you release it, so they HAVE to be together, so we actually kept them separated by putting one in a pillow case.

The furry blue thing with nipples is probably an attempt at a squirrel pacifier. It looks pretty damned clever... but then it's obviously not working all that well.

It can't be a feeding mechanism because you have to be pretty precise in feeding them - it requires a nipple on a syringe so you can monitor their intake and make sure they don't aspirate the formula (breathe it) and kill themselves.

Posted by: Jentle on April 15, 2004 9:52 PM

.... I wish we'd thought of the diapers....

Posted by: Jentle on April 15, 2004 9:54 PM

I once lived with two young cats, one a year older than the other, both of whom were taken away from their litter before being properly weaned. This made them both frantically affectionate and needy.

One way we would get a drooling purring cat to leave us alone was to carry the kneading beast to where the other one was and drop them off, whereupon much mutual grooming and snuggling would take place. All was well.

Then they got in the habit of exhibiting 'innate suckling behavior,' usually in the middle of the living room floor. The elder female kitty would sprawl, on her back, legs spread, purring like a, a, a, vibrator, pawing at the air and occasionally coughing from drooling too much.

The younger, male cat would assiduously knead the female's belly while nibbling and sucking on a point just inside her left thigh.

They would do this for hours, and it actually went from being mystifying, to hilarious, to actively disturbing. Imagine if your human roommates in college did this and refused to stop for several days, and the 'disturbing' part may come clear.

We did figure out that it was suckling behavior, but when your skin crawls, your skin crawls. We referred to it as 'catilingus.'

Posted by: mike on April 16, 2004 2:27 PM

I fear the the "squirrel treatment" has entered my vocabulary. It is pretty hideous.

Posted by: Chris on April 16, 2004 2:45 PM

What's more absurd is that people try to rescue squirrels...

No, really. I think it's so unfair to rats. What--if they had big fluffy tails would there be a rat rescue squad?

Or is it the rats lack of kinky sexual behavior that damns them to the vermin-and not-cute category?

Posted by: Miel on April 17, 2004 10:41 AM

Miel, I have a pet rat, and I think she's very cute. Also: there are rat rescue squads all over the US!

Posted by: Ariel on April 17, 2004 3:17 PM

"Orphaned baby squirrels frequently will suckle on the nose, ears, elbows, thumb nub, genitals, stomach of other babies or even themselves. They will also suckle on stuffed animals, a towel, just about anything."

The interesting part is i'm told Keith Richards and David Bowie exhibit the exact same behaviour.

Posted by: chris on April 17, 2004 4:38 PM

Regarding - Research Day Bonus!: "Inguinal" means " Of, relating to, or located in the groin." Twenty points if you can work that into a casual conversation today.

Well, it was barely a month ago that I had my left inguinal hernia repaired and I just got back from my first post-surgical backpacking trip.

Did I win?

Posted by: Andy on April 18, 2004 8:20 PM

"Well, it was barely a month ago that I had my left inguinal hernia repaired and I just got back from my first post-surgical backpacking trip.

Did I win?

The Back packing trip or the Hernia? Personally i think it was a tie.


Posted by: chris on April 19, 2004 9:21 AM

When I was a kid, I was given that same explanation as to why there were so few grey squirrels about. (the thing about red squirrels castrating their enemies) And that was from Dad the Park Ranger.

Posted by: Mr. Big Business on April 20, 2004 6:25 PM

As my father once explained to me, castration of your enemies is one of the finer points of corporate american life. It took me YEARS to understand he meant figuratively.

Posted by: chris on April 22, 2004 6:28 AM

"For example, to make a cow pee for collecting a urine specimen, just tickle its vulva (not only is it not illegal, I get graded on it."

One of those Animal Planet shows had a zoologist trying to get a sperm sample from a rhino. The rhino kept sitting down whenever he was ready, and the zoologist couldn't position the cup to collect the sample.

Posted by: Maktaaq on April 22, 2004 10:20 PM