'U' researchers focus on squirrels, campus takes note

Wednesday, October 9, 2019 - 3:27pm

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Alexis Rankin/Daily

College students go nuts for squirrels, but at the University of Michigan researchers have taken an interest as well. U-M is one of several schools participating in a research project called the Kluane Red Squirrel Project.

Ben Dantzer, an assistant professor of Psychology and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University, leads the research project based in Yukon, Canada. The study has been going on for 30 years, making it the longest running research project of its kind and focuses on North American red squirrels. The goal of the project is to learn what allows an animal to be successful in survival and reproduction over generations.

Dantzer said his research allows scientists to know more about how an animal’s early life affects its adulthood traits and behaviors, which can often be applied to human topics as well. 

“We know that these things may occur in rats and mice in laboratory environments,” Danzter said. “It may occur in humans but we can’t do experiments on humans for obvious reasons, and then lab mice have a lot of artifacts where the environment is constant: they have constant food, they’re comfortable, they are fat and happy, literally. In wild animals, you can kind of study whether those things happen in nature where they are experiencing fluctuations in their environments and that’s going to impact those things.”


The team is also able to learn more about the impacts of climate change by observing how the changing conditions affect the squirrels, Dantzer said. 

“They give us an idea of how animals will respond to global and environmental changes in terms of reductions in winter severity, changes in precipitation patterns, warming pattern, things like that,” Dantzer said. “So if we’re able to study these types of questions of how they adapt to changes in global climate, then that can help us to understand better things about how other animals might adapt to changing climates.”

Dantzer expressed his excitement about another squirrel research project being conducted right on campus. This is led by Rackham student Charlotte Devits, who is researching the effects that an urban environment has on the survival of wildlife. Devits’s thesis project aims to discover how an urban environment such as Ann Arbor affects the behavior of wildlife. Devits tags squirrels, which allows researchers to track the squirrels and maintain personal information about each one.

The squirrels are tagged in the Nichols Arboretum, but they eventually make their way to the Diag and other parts of campus. In an interview posted to the Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum’s website, Devits said she hopes to uncover what traits help our squirrels — formally known as Fox Squirrels — survive in this environment, as well as other cities and urban environments. She’s also recording data on health factors, for example, observing each squirrel for wounds, parasites, mange and other conditions.

“We’re trying to understand what allows the species to cope with different levels of urbanization,” Devitz said in the interview. “We focus on personality traits to see if a particular behavior is present across the study sites.”

Devitz did not respond to an interview request from The Michigan Daily. 

LSA senior Sanjana Ramesh said she loves the campus squirrels and did some digging into what the ear tags were when she noticed them.

“I just really like the squirrels,” Ramesh said. “There’s this whole meme going around on the internet about how our campus’s squirrels are the best, and I can definitely conform to that. I think that the whole part of the squirrel tags was just new and I'm really curious.”

Ramesh said that, as a senior, she had never seen squirrels with ear tags on campus.

“I just thought it was interesting, and I wanted to know why,” Ramesh said. “I do know that other animals are tagged, so I wanted to know. I figured it was a research thing because that's usually what it is … Thankfully, it was research and they’re not trying to kill our squirrels. I was really scared they were trying to kill our squirrels.”

LSA senior Molly Mearn,  an executive board member for the Squirrel Club, said she thought the research was great, as long as it did not pose a threat to the safety of the squirrels.

“If there’s a valid scientific motivation to the tagging, and the tagging is done in a way that minimizes harm to the squirrels, I think it’s not too bad,” Mearns said. “But if there isn’t really a benefit to it and it harms the squirrels, then I don’t see a reason for it. I think, compared to previous years, there are slightly fewer squirrels around campus and in the Diag in particular, so I’m not sure if there is a population control issue right now. Additionally, I haven’t really noticed any aggression from squirrels, so I hope that isn’t part of the concern.”

In terms of work being done to ensure the safety of the squirrels, Dantzer said wild animal researchers must follow a set of rules that govern how invasive tagging can be. The rules state that a tag or monitor can be no more than 5 percent of the animal’s body weight. He and Devits adhere to this strictly. 

He said that a great deal of research has been conducted on how squirrels are affected by being tagged and collared, and so far, no studies have indicated any sort of negative outcomes from human intervention.

Dantzer said he has big plans for the future of squirrel research, as he plans to hopefully use microchips to track squirrels’ heart rates and brain activity in order to determine sleep patterns. This information will hopefully give scientists insight into why humans and animals need sleep in order to survive. However, Dantzer said he is hesitant to do this now, as he would not want to introduce a more invasive tracking device that would negatively impact the campus squirrels.

“We’re not yet going to do these implants in the squirrels (on campus), and part of it is because I think that, for most people, each day the only wildlife they ever interact with is these squirrels, and that’s a very valuable thing for us to have because it maintains some sense of awareness of nature,” Dantzer said.

 

of awareness of nature,” Dantzer said.