by Kathleen Scalise
It's not performance art that's been gracing the campus's eucalyptus grove, it's a science experiment. Lucia Jacobs, assistant professor of psychology, and researcher Michael Shiflett have built a vertical maze to simulate the branching of trees. Squirrels take the bait in a forest glade on the southwest corner of campus near Strawberry Creek.
"It's always been a dream of mine to actually test wild animals in their natural environment and not bring them into the lab," said Jacobs. Her recruitment of Strawberry Creek squirrels to run the vertical labyrinth marks perhaps the first successful maze experiment in the field.
Her maze of aluminum poles and construction fencing rises in the air about 10 feet and can be endlessly reconfigured. Experiments collect data on memory and behavior patterns in squirrels. Jacobs has published repeatedly on her work (see Berkeleyan, Nov. 11, 1997) and numbers among her findings evidence for how animals remember and return to a point in space, whether it be to find stored nuts in the ground or to return to a rich cluster high in the canopy overhead.
Jacobs stows the maze after each day's experiment, thwarting squirrels who'd like playtime on the structure, which looks like a swingset without seats. She says the squirrels love it and line up each morning to beg their turns. But of the 100 or more squirrels on campus, only a few are selected to participate in each experiment.
The disappointed onlookers may have another chance this spring, when new experiments commence. In the meantime, Jacobs is furiously writing up results on her new field approach, suitably dubbed "The Jacobs' Ladder Maze."