Jun 29, 2009
Sittin on the porch countin squirrels this weekend?
Email those numbers to a Chicago scientist and you can take part in a citizen-science project that has implications not just for the furry tree-dwelling varmints, but for animals and ecosystems throughout the world.
The Chicago Academy of Sciences just revived a decade-old project that used citizen “squirrel monitors” to document the prevalence of two species of tree squirrels–the gray squirrel and the fox squirrel—in the Chicago area. The revived project is seeking data from people “no matter where you live, city or suburb, from the Midwest to the East Coast, Canada to California.”
And no matter who you are. “That’s why it’s so cool, because everybody can get involved,” Steve Sullivan, the project’s lead scientist, told me yesterday on the phone:
I have 7-year-old girls getting involved, I have grandmas at rest homes getting involved, I had the CEO of a record label email me the other day with her observations. It’s simple, it’s fun, everybody can do it, it’s great for the family, and ultimately it has potentially a huge impact. The more people that get involved, the bigger our impact.
Squirrels are easy to study—they’re essentially ubiquitous, Sullivan told me, they’re diurnal, so people see them during the day, and everyone has an opinion about them. And it turns out that squirrels are important to study for a couple of reasons:
• Scientists can monitor squirrel behavior to document the hospitality of ecosystems to many species. Squirrels share resources with other forest animals and migratory birds. When food is plentiful, squirrels stay close to trees, which offer them safety. But when they are hungry or ill, they will risk that safety and travel further for food. Scientists measure the distance squirrels travel from trees as a reflection of ecosystem health.
• It’s also important to study the American eastern gray squirrel, an adept survivor, because it has become an invasive species in other parts of the world. It has been blamed for declining numbers of red squirrels in England and western gray squirrels in California. Sullivan:
One of our native fauna is out there really screwing things up in Britain and scotland, and also in Italy. As I begin to understand the mechanisms of coexistence more clearly in our region, hopefully this will result in some solutions to problems that a species that is native here, but not native there, is causing.
The previous version of the study found gray squirrels associated with oaks and pines and fox squirrels associated with maples and elms. It found more gray squirrels in areas with apartment buildings and multi-story dwellings, and more fox squirrels in areas with single-family homes.
Fox squirrels were also more likely to thrive in areas with lots of cats and dogs, likely because they evolved at forest edges, where they were more likely to encounter predators. Gray squirrels evolved in forest interiors. What about black squirrels? They’re a variant of the gray species.
Sullivan is also studying the third major species involved in this study: the human squirrel monitors. He surveys his squirrel monitors at different points in the study to measure their knowledge and attitudes toward the environment.
If people can suddenly differentiate two species of squirrels that live in their neighborhood, and they begin to look at them with a more critical eye, does that mean that they then begin to be able to observe nature with more understanding or compassion or care or interest?”
Squirrel monitors can submit numbers, stories, or photos by visiting the Project Squirrel website.