Bay High graduate studies local squirrel population
A bushy-tailed squirrel scampers back and forth in a small wire cage below the towering trees of Baldwin Wallace University’s leafy north campus in Berea. Upon closer inspection, the young male bears a small, numbered red tag in his ear – evidence that it’s not the first time this particular Eastern Gray has been a part of the live trapping and tagging taking place around BW this summer.
As BW junior Carmen Rush, a Bay High School graduate, records the tag number on a detailed research form, Dr. Karen Munroe, assistant professor of biology at BW, gently herds this “repeat customer” from the live trap into a pointed canvas bag. The snug, dark wrap both calms the squirrel and provides a strategically placed Velcro opening for safely taking measurements and DNA samples, before the squirrel is released unharmed.
“We like to point to the ones who come back repeatedly for the peanut butter bait as confirmation that there’s very little disturbance to the animals during the five minutes or so we examine them,” says Munroe, who’s leading the bio-conservation research project looking into squirrel social behaviors and mating.
Gray squirrels and fox squirrels are abundant in Northeast Ohio. In fact, Munroe calls them “ubiquitous,” and that’s just one of the reasons she sees these common backyard animals as ideal research subjects. “While the types of squirrels we see in here enjoy healthy populations, there is a real need for basic ecological data for management and conservation of the more than 80 percent tree squirrel populations or subspecies in the world that are threatened or endangered.”
Sporting a bright gold “Team Squirrel” tee shirt, Rush, one of two grant-funded summer research assistants, describes the experience as “awesome” for a sustainability and biology double major.
“I feel like I’m in the classroom all the time and I hear about other people doing research,” Rush says. “I don’t like to sit around. I like to be doing something. Participating in this study, I feel like a real scientist.”
In fact, the science is quite real and involves a two-pronged approach, with both field and lab components. Fieldwork consists of live trapping and marking the small mammals, along with placing radio collars on the females for classic field behavioral observations. In the fall, lab work will focus on analyzing DNA samples taken from subjects in the field, to determine paternity, genetic diversity and other factors that might paint a clearer picture of squirrel mating and social structure.
"At first, when I told my friends about my summer job, they thought I was yanking their chain," Rush laughs.
On a typical data collection day, the traps are placed out around campus early in the morning and captured squirrels are examined and released within a few hours. Munroe stresses that her team uses humane and “standard methods of capture, handling, marking and observation approved by the American Society of Mammalogists and permitted under Ohio Division of Wildlife and BW’s Institutional Animal Use and Care Committee.”
“We love our squirrels as much as anyone else,” Munroe says. “If an animal is overly agitated, we just let it go without collecting any data.”
Munroe hopes the information gained from this study will further the knowledge of mating and social systems in tree squirrels, particularly in ever growing urban settings. “Our investigation could also benefit the flip side to the species of conservation concern,” Munroe continues. “For example, there’s a need for better management techniques of gray squirrels in England and throughout Europe, where they are considered non-native, invasive species.”
Whether the aim is to increase the population of a threatened subspecies or to control one that’s invasive, Munroe notes that resources are limited. “Understanding territory/home range requirements, mating requirements, mechanisms of dispersal and effects of competition can help us make smarter decisions about wildlife management.”
Westlake resident and Public Information Associate at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea.