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And you thought they just liked acorns...

Campus squirrels are picking up quite a nasty habit.

Squirrels converging near the west side of the Student Center, all around the outside patio, are chewing and eating cigarette butts left behind by smokers in the area. Other squirrels in the adjacent woods also have been seen chewing on the discarded butts.

But while fears of SIUC's squirrels becoming addicted to cigarettes may not seem so far fetched, a campus wildlife ecologist says there's nothing to worry about; the furry little scamps just like the taste of nicotine.

We saw this squirrel just gnawing on the cigarette, then dropped it and just got another one. And its eyes were real big, said Renee Will, a senior in plant biology. I've heard of people who have had the squirrels jump up at them. I think they're more aggressive because of it.

Tiger Scott, a graduate student in film, said the day she heard about the phenomenon she saw a similar sight.

It was coming close to me, and it looked a little crazy, she said. Then it picked up a cigarette and just started eating it.

While this may sound odd, it's not the first time this has happened. Alan Woolf, the director of the University's Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory, says the squirrels, along with a herd of other animals, simply enjoy the taste of cigarettes.

A lot of animals like the taste of nicotine, said Woolf, a wildlife ecologist. It's not surprising at all. I've heard of that from people who have pet deer who chew on cigarettes and cigars, they like the taste. Horses, too. Actually, hoofed animals are reported to do that.

SIUC's squirrels are notoriously known to be scavengers of any fast-food item thrown out, and garbage can raids are a common occurrence. The targeted items usually are food, but in this case, Woolf said they won't be harmed by eating a filter or two.

Not at all, they'll pass it on through. There's concern for [animals eating] sharp objects, but if it's a cigarette butt, it'll pass through, he said.

Officials with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in Springfield say this is all news to them. Paul Shelton, the forest wildlife program manager with DNR, said he's never heard of that kind of behavior before. Dwayne Etter, of the Wildlife Ecology Department of the Illinois Natural History Survey, said while he deals with deer populations, he knows of no such cigarette butt munching trend.

For some animals, cigarette butts are a serious problem. State DNR agencies along both coasts issue warnings of how discarded cigarettes, if ingested, can kill fish or harm aquatic life.

For SIUC squirrels, though, they're bound to keep up with this bizarre behavior until that day when students, instructors and administrators alike learn where cigarette butts should go.

There's an ashtray outside of every single building on this campus, Will said. The cigarette butts are all over the place, all over the ground. Squirrels are eating the discarded butts. It's ridiculous.

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