Squirrels are such a common part of the our outdoor experiences, that we can sometimes forget that they play important roles in our wilderness ecosystems.
Environmental science student Heather Spicer spent her final year of studies researching the impacts and distribution of red squirrels and eastern chipmunks. Her work was supervised by Dr. Erin Fraser, environmental biology.
"Both species were introduced to the island of Newfoundland," said Ms. Spicer "There is evidence that the introduction of red squirrels has corresponded with significant changes to the ecology of several native animal and plant species, and little is known about the ecological implications of the introduction of eastern chipmunks."
The full extent of both the red squirrel and eastern chipmunk ranges across insular Newfoundland and the surrounding islands has not been described.
Ms. Spicer was challenged to come up a method of collecting research on these species. She knew that red squirrels reliably respond to broadcasts of recorded conspecific territorial vocalizations, both through calling back and approaching the speaker. However, variation in the responsiveness of red squirrels to call broadcasts over time is not well understood, she said.
Interestingly, elementary students became a critical part of her data collection. Ms. Spicer reached out to schools and recruited students to be part of a citizen science investigation. Some classes chose to take class walks where they recorded sightings and signs of squirrels, while others took nature walks with their families and interviewed friends and families who spend time in forested areas.
Ms. Spicer received information from more than 50 teachers in some 29 schools on the island. She also incorporated hands-on activities and worksheets that helped to further educate the students, and provided opportunities for educators to fulfill their curriculum criteria.
Ms. Spicer also investigated how red squirrel detectability varied over time by conducting monthly point counts and call broadcasts along standardized survey routes at two locations on the west coast of Newfoundland. These surveys were conducted between August 2016 and February 2017.
Through her research, Ms. Spicer received more than 800 reports of red squirrels and 300 of eastern chipmunks. This information, she said, will help to better understand red squirrel and eastern chipmunk distribution in Newfoundland.
For this research, Ms. Spicer received second place award for undergraduate oral presentation at the Science Atlantic- Environment conference. Following graduation this spring, Ms. Spicer will begin a position with the Canadian Forestry Service.