— Brains of the Yukon —

Physiology and behavior of Wild Squirrels

As part of the Dantzer Lab at the University of Michigan, we aim to record physiological and behavioral activity of wild squirrels in the Canadian Yukon as part of the Kluane Red Squirrel Project. Below is a brief, and very casual travelogue of my initial visit (i.e., Part I).

Project Summary: The ecological niche occupied by wild squirrels has been conserved for millions of years and is highlighted by their unique adaptations to arboreal life (i.e., in the trees). Their ability to regulate energy and maintain fitness through a variety of natural, and imposed challenges ultimately determines their odds of survival. Little is known about how the central nervous system (CNS) is involved in these natural behaviors. The goal of this project is to record from the CNS of wild squirrels to understand how their physiology and behavior are correlated, given the varying demands of their environment. Adding resolution to these important ecological factors underlying animal fitness and survival is an important consideration to ongoing conservation work, potentially highlighting what ‘optimal adaptations’ are from a physiological perspective.

JUL 3.1  // Erin and Andrew leading into The Kluane Red Squirrel Project, a.k.a. Squirrel Camp. For over 30 years, research teams from multiple institutions have been performing behavioral and ecological research here. Squirrels occupy an interesting niche in this habitat; they are on a tightrope of survivorship, regulating energy through extreme conditions with limited resources. My work here aims to understand the neural basis of their behavior, developing methods to do neuroscience in the wild.

JUL 3.1 // Erin and Andrew leading into The Kluane Red Squirrel Project, a.k.a. Squirrel Camp. For over 30 years, research teams from multiple institutions have been performing behavioral and ecological research here. Squirrels occupy an interesting niche in this habitat; they are on a tightrope of survivorship, regulating energy through extreme conditions with limited resources. My work here aims to understand the neural basis of their behavior, developing methods to do neuroscience in the wild.

JUL 3.2  // Chop wood. Crunch data.

JUL 3.2 // Chop wood. Crunch data.

JUL 4.1  // Rise and shine. It’s 0600 and squirrelers are making coffee, prepping a quick breakfast, tying boots, strapping on vests. Each person is on a project, from tracking animals with radio collars to counting cones in the trees.


JUL 4.1 // Rise and shine. It’s 0600 and squirrelers are making coffee, prepping a quick breakfast, tying boots, strapping on vests. Each person is on a project, from tracking animals with radio collars to counting cones in the trees.

JUL 4.2  //  @lauraeliuk  in her element, showing me the ropes of telemetry. Each squirrel has a radio collar that sends out a beacon on a specific frequency. She tunes in, and we go searching. It’s an art, a bit of luck, and I swear some voodoo.

JUL 4.2 // @lauraeliuk in her element, showing me the ropes of telemetry. Each squirrel has a radio collar that sends out a beacon on a specific frequency. She tunes in, and we go searching. It’s an art, a bit of luck, and I swear some voodoo.

JUL 4.3  //  @lindsay_millward  joins us as we locate a momma squirrel in a ground nest. She ran after we stomped around a few times. Lindsay is shoulder deep looking for her pups. This year is weird—the trees are masting, which means they are producing cones, and this only happens every 4-5 years. It means the females will have enough food to nurture their offspring. It also means the males will try to kill those young so that the females will be willing to mate again. Understanding how food availability affects offspring survival and augments behavior are some of the questions researchers are answering.

JUL 4.3 // @lindsay_millward joins us as we locate a momma squirrel in a ground nest. She ran after we stomped around a few times. Lindsay is shoulder deep looking for her pups. This year is weird—the trees are masting, which means they are producing cones, and this only happens every 4-5 years. It means the females will have enough food to nurture their offspring. It also means the males will try to kill those young so that the females will be willing to mate again. Understanding how food availability affects offspring survival and augments behavior are some of the questions researchers are answering.

JUL 4.4  // 4 healthy pups! An exciting moment.

JUL 4.4 // 4 healthy pups! An exciting moment.

JUL 4.5  // They are precious.

JUL 4.5 // They are precious.

JUL 4.6  // At roughly 30 grams, their coats are just coming in. Their eyes are still shut. They have basic reflexes, but have a lot of growing to do. Everyone here knows it’s a long road for each one; the first two years of a squirrel’s life are critical and hard. If they are born in a year with scarce resources, it’s unlikely they will make it to adulthood. Time to go back to momma...

JUL 4.6 // At roughly 30 grams, their coats are just coming in. Their eyes are still shut. They have basic reflexes, but have a lot of growing to do. Everyone here knows it’s a long road for each one; the first two years of a squirrel’s life are critical and hard. If they are born in a year with scarce resources, it’s unlikely they will make it to adulthood. Time to go back to momma...

JUL 4.7  // In the afternoon, we went trapping. She is pregnant! I’m feeling her belly. She is in the ‘P2’ stage, which is midway through. It takes a little over a month from conception to birth for the red squirrel. You can feel the babies forming; at this point they are just little, marble shaped fetuses in there. We will record this good news and let her go. Good luck mamma.

JUL 4.7 // In the afternoon, we went trapping. She is pregnant! I’m feeling her belly. She is in the ‘P2’ stage, which is midway through. It takes a little over a month from conception to birth for the red squirrel. You can feel the babies forming; at this point they are just little, marble shaped fetuses in there. We will record this good news and let her go. Good luck mamma.

JUL 4.8  // Later that day, we went to play some rugby with a local tour guide and a few other wildlife researchers. This cutie showed up too, as Dylan was being treated for a nail-in-the-foot injury.

JUL 4.8 // Later that day, we went to play some rugby with a local tour guide and a few other wildlife researchers. This cutie showed up too, as Dylan was being treated for a nail-in-the-foot injury.

JUL 5.1  // The mosquitos might be out, but it’s my kind of office. Work today is software development and grant writing. The other 18 people at camp are going and coming from the field, wrangling their data, eating lunch, taking naps. It is quite the family, from undergraduates to principal investigators.

JUL 5.1 // The mosquitos might be out, but it’s my kind of office. Work today is software development and grant writing. The other 18 people at camp are going and coming from the field, wrangling their data, eating lunch, taking naps. It is quite the family, from undergraduates to principal investigators.

JUL 5.2  // Glacial dip.

JUL 5.2 // Glacial dip.

JUL 5.3  // Night. The sun barely takes a break at this latitude this time of the year.

JUL 5.3 // Night. The sun barely takes a break at this latitude this time of the year.

JUL 6.1  // Seeds germinate better after being digested. Stress hormones can be detected. Diet, ...  #scat   #ecology

JUL 6.1 // Seeds germinate better after being digested. Stress hormones can be detected. Diet, ... #scat #ecology

JUL 6.2  // There she is! She is a cutie —  @fitzalli  favorite?

JUL 6.2 // There she is! She is a cutie — @fitzalli favorite?

JUL 6.3  // Sous chefs.  @staverz  is making shakshuka for 19!

JUL 6.3 // Sous chefs. @staverz is making shakshuka for 19!

JUL 6.4  // Dessert crew is piecing together a layered pudding... then a little Rose, Bud, Thorn. What was beautiful about your day? What is upcoming? What was unpleasant?

JUL 6.4 // Dessert crew is piecing together a layered pudding... then a little Rose, Bud, Thorn. What was beautiful about your day? What is upcoming? What was unpleasant?

JUL 7.1  // Everyone here is fascinated by wildlife, and in turn, we deal with wilddeath. It’s a balance. No one is harming an animal here, but neither are they augmenting survival. Animals will die from the elements, and it’s sad, inevitable, and ultimately logged as a date in a giant spreadsheet.

JUL 7.1 // Everyone here is fascinated by wildlife, and in turn, we deal with wilddeath. It’s a balance. No one is harming an animal here, but neither are they augmenting survival. Animals will die from the elements, and it’s sad, inevitable, and ultimately logged as a date in a giant spreadsheet.

JUL 7.2  // John Muir is often abbreviated when quoted from a letter to his sister, “The mountains are calling & I must go”... what he continues on to write is the most important part and most telling of his relationship with nature and himself, “& I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.”

JUL 7.2 // John Muir is often abbreviated when quoted from a letter to his sister, “The mountains are calling & I must go”... what he continues on to write is the most important part and most telling of his relationship with nature and himself, “& I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.”