At Concordia, even the squirrels have something to teach.
Concordia’s squirrels are common, but they’re providing researchers on campus with opportunities to gather some unique data.
When it comes to the campus landscape, Concordia’s squirrels are as much a part of the picture as Prexy’s Pond or Olin Hill. They’ve been the subject of Orientation Week sketches and even have their own Facebook group. But for Dr. Joseph Whittaker, assistant professor of biology, the squirrels are more than a punchline.
Whittaker and his student researchers have spent the last year capturing squirrels all around campus, attaching radio bands so they can be tracked and releasing them. It’s an effort that has required two separate grant proposals and the involvement of more than a dozen students. But what makes Concordia’s squirrels worth researching?
To start, Concordia’s campus plays host to not just one but two different varieties of squirrels, the North American Gray Squirrel and the American Red Squirrel. In fact, a combination of factors makes Concordia’s campus uniquely suited to learning about how these species of squirrel interact with one another and with the humans who share their habitat.
“Squirrel species have been well studied individually, but there are few studies looking at two species occupying the same area, and particularly these two species. Additionally, very few look at them in an urban setting,” Whittaker says.
Learning how these two species cohabitate while competing for resources like food and shelter fills a gap in the existing research. Whittaker and two of his students applied for grants to purchase the radio telemetry equipment they’ve been using to track over a dozen squirrels since last spring.
Whittaker feels the student experience is well worth the investment.
“For the students helping with all aspects, this is giving them firsthand experience conducting an original research project,” he says. “This will be valuable for them in the future in both potentially conducting other projects or understanding research they read.”
Caitlan Hinton ’14, who worked with Whittaker on the initial grant proposal and was deeply involved in the research project until her graduation in December, believes the experience gained through this type of research has broader applications.
“Research is a great way to strengthen many skills that will be helpful in future jobs,” she says. “It also opens the door to a lot of opportunities like jobs and research conferences.”
Hinton will present the research at the Sigma Zeta National Convention at the University of Pikeville (Ky.).
Whittaker believes there’s still plenty to learn about Concordia’s squirrels and has plans to extend his research for as long as he can secure grants.
“There are a lot of big ecological concepts that can be tested with squirrels and, in some cases, already have been,” he says. “I think we are at the tip of the iceberg.”