Researchers are nuts for Yukon’s ‘squirrel camp’- CBC News

The Kluane Red Squirrel Project has been going strong for more than 30 years

CBC News Posted: Sep 08, 2017 7:00 AM CT Last Updated: Sep 08, 2017 5:17 PM CT

'Squirrel camp', also known as the Kluane Red Squirrel Project, has been hosting researchers for more than 30 years. It's a partnership between five universities.

‘Squirrel camp’, also known as the Kluane Red Squirrel Project, has been hosting researchers for more than 30 years. It’s a partnership between five universities. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

Andrea Wishart tells people she chases squirrels for a living.

She’s only half-joking — the University of Saskatchewan Ph.D. student has spent months tracking and observing the little rodents at “squirrel camp,” also known as the Kluane Red Squirrel Project. It’s a small but renowned research camp at the foot of the Saint Elias mountains, alongside the Alaska Highway in Yukon.

Andrea Wishart

‘I’m fascinated with how animals interact with their environments and manage their own resources,’ says Andrea Wishart, a PhD student now at squirrel camp. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

“Obviously, there’s much more to what I do than just running around the forest looking at little tree rodents,” Wishart said. “But I’m fascinated with how animals interact with their environments and manage their own resources.”

The Kluane Red Squirrel Project — launched 31 years ago — is a partnership between five universities: McGill, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Guelph and Michigan. It allows students and researchers to live on site and study the little animals in their natural habitat.

The camp’s doormat reads — what else? — “Welcome to the nuthouse.”

Data collected at the camp over the years has shed light on everything from squirrels’ “personality” and social behaviour to their sex lives.

“We know everyone who’s lived here; we know who’s related to who, how often they’ve bred, who they’ve given birth to, who they mated with — all of that information,” said Zach Fogel, a senior technician at the camp.

Red squirrel

Data collected at the research camp over the years has shed light on red squirrel habits and behaviour. (Andrea Wishart)

Wishart’s research focus is on the squirrel’s caching behaviour — how they stockpile food. She’s even collared some animals with “squirrel Fitbits” to help track their movement.

“They basically have little addresses in the forest that you can predictably find the same animal at, and they will stay at that territory for almost their whole life,” she said.

Wishart says the historic data, collected over decades, is invaluable.

“I think we’re up to over 400 people that have been ‘squirrellers’, or technicians, on the project. It’s a lot of people — tons and tons of researchers,” she said.

“There’s been influences in all kinds of different fields of research at this point, using squirrels as a model system. And some of the questions have been very squirrel-specific — ‘why do squirrels specifically do what they do?’ — but the broader context of it is understanding how animals work in a wild environment.”

‘Really cool community atmosphere’

Rodent research is not for everyone — even if the rodents are cute and bushy-tailed — but for the biologists at squirrel camp, life doesn’t get much better.

“I really love it,” Fogel said. “You know, there’s — in my opinion — something to be said for being outside all the time and just kind of a little bit dirty all the time. You know, my hands constantly have rubbed-in dirt, and we can’t obviously shower that often.”

Kluane Red Squirrel Project

‘There’s a really cool community atmosphere, you know. We have family dinner every night where no matter how busy people are with work,’ says research technician Zach Fogel. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

But what makes the camp most special, he says, is the comraderie among scientists.

“In general, everyone helps each other out a lot. There’s a really cool community atmosphere, you know, we have family dinner every night where no matter how busy people are with work,” Fogel said.

Kiley Chernicky agrees. She’s been working with Wishart, tagging, trapping and collaring squirrels, and counting pinecones.

Unlike the squirrels, Chernicky is not in her natural habitat. It’s her first time in the boreal forest.

“It was a long way for me to come. I actually drove up from Florida to Saskatoon, and then took a flight from Saskatoon to Whitehorse,” Chernicky said.

“The interactions that I have with the other scientists here, the amount of knowledge and theories that are bounced off of each other — it’s absolutely incredible.”

Andrea Wishart, Kiley Chernicky

Wishart in the field with Kiley Chernicky, who came from Florida to work at squirrel camp. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

How Warming Is Profoundly Changing a Great Northern Wilderness by Ed Struzik

Yale Environment 360

Published at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

The newly exposed bed of Kluane Lake in the Yukon. The Kaskawulsh Glacier has been retreating so rapidly that its meltwater carved a new path that cut off flow into the river that feeds the lake, causing water levels to drop more than four feet and exposing parts of the lake bottom.  

The newly exposed bed of Kluane Lake in the Yukon. The Kaskawulsh Glacier has been retreating so rapidly that its meltwater carved a new path that cut off flow into the river that feeds the lake, causing water levels to drop more than four feet and exposing parts of the lake bottom.   JIM BEST/UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS

How Warming Is Profoundly Changing a Great Northern Wilderness

The abrupt change in direction of a Yukon river because of a rapidly melting glacier has attracted international attention. But this bizarre development is just one of many climate-driven events that are transforming a vast sub-Arctic area of Canada and Alaska.

Last week, a scientific study from the world’s largest sub-polar ice field, centered in southwestern Yukon, reported a finding so bizarre that it made international news: A massive glacier — three miles wide and covering 10,000 square miles — was retreating so rapidly that its meltwater had carved a new path that cut off the long-term flow into one river and channeled most of the flow into another. Scientists even had a name for this phenomenon — “river piracy” — and linked it to the rapid warming of this sub-Arctic region.

But what was largely overlooked in reports about the re-routing of meltwater from the Kaskawulsh Glacier is that it’s just one of numerous climate-driven, threshold-crashing events that have been throwing the ecosystem in Canada’s Kluane National Park off kilter. Together with Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve — the largest national park in the United States — Kluane park comprises a vast area of towering mountains, forests, alpine valleys, and glaciers experiencing major climatic, glaciological, and ecological changes as Arctic and sub-Arctic regions swiftly warm. And as the hijacking of a river in Kluane park demonstrates, these changes are sometimes rapid and unpredictable.

Kluane National Park in southwestern Yukon, in the center of a vast, ice-bound area in Canada and Alaska undergoing rapid climate change.

Kluane National Park in southwestern Yukon, in the center of a vast, ice-bound area in Canada and Alaska undergoing rapid climate change. PARKS CANADA

Temperatures in the Yukon have increased by more than 2 degrees C — 3.6 F — in the past 50 years, a key factor in the retreat of glaciers such as the Kaskawulsh. In the boreal forest regions of Kluane National Park, the spruce bark beetle — a temperature-sensitive insect that has destroyed tens of millions of acres of evergreen forests in western North America — has infested approximately 900,000 acres of forest. In the Alpine and tundra areas of Kluane, trees and woody shrubs are taking over the lichen, sedge and grasslands of the tundra. Wetlands are drying up, and some invasive plants, such as European dandelion, have shown up on the fringes of the park.

Wildlife populations such as moose, Dall sheep, red squirrels, and snowshoe hare are either declining or shifting or doing things that are making scientists scratch their heads. Caribou and sheep are dispersing, possibly because woody shrubs are overtaking alpine and tundra ecosystems. Mountain lions are now moving into the region, following deer that have shown up from the south because frigid winters are no longer holding them back.

“In many ways, Kluane is a speeded-up version of what is happening throughout the world,” says Garry Clarke, an emeritus professor of glaciology at the University of British Columbia, who first started working in the park in 1962. “It’s a compelling landscape, breathtaking in so many ways, and always changing. But because of climate change, the landscape changes are being pushed forward faster than what you’d normally expect.”

The unraveling of the river piracy mystery began late last summer. Then, University of Washington geomorphologist Dan Shugar and his colleagues travelled north to Kluane Park to see how glacial sediments in the Slims River — fed by the Kaskawulsh Glacier — affected the delta and lake bottom of Kluane Lake. At 158 square miles, Kluane Lake is almost as large as Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in North America.

Two years earlier, local bush pilots had reported that the Slims River wasn’t flowing as robustly as it once had. When Shugar’s team arrived on the scene, however, they were astonished by what they saw. The once-mighty river had been reduced to a trickle, and the enormous lake into which it drained — Kluane— had dropped by more than four feet.

This was the first case of ‘river piracy’ that geologists have seen in modern times, and one that happened swiftly.

Shugar, along with colleagues James Best and John Clague, went to the town of Haines Junction, where they tapped into Wi-Fi and pored over satellite images to try to figure out what had happened. After spotting landscape and hydrological changes, the scientists chartered a helicopter and flew to the toe of the Kaskawulsh Glacier for a closer look. Once there, they observed that the meltwater and outflow from the rapidly retreating river of ice had carved a 100-foot deep canyon that was diverting most of its meltwater into the Kaskawulsh River rather than the Slims. Instead of flowing north into the Bering Sea, via the Slims River, the meltwater was flowing southwest into British Columbia and the Gulf of Alaska.

This was the first case of “river piracy” that geologists have seen in modern times, and one that happened swiftly rather than incrementally, as was usually the case in the distant past. With the Kaskawulsh Glacier steadily retreating, there is little likelihood that the flow of glacial meltwater will be restored to the Slims. Yukon glaciers have lost 22 per cent of their surface area since 1958.

The implications of this river piracy are far-reaching because the Slims is the main source of cold, sediment-rich water flowing into Kluane Lake, which is 50 miles long. Not only does this hijacking of the Slims’ flow have implications for fish such as lake trout and whitefish, but it might also result in Kluane Lake becoming too shallow to drain into the river that bears its name. If that were to happen, as Simon Fraser university scientist John Clague suspects, the lake would become hydrologically isolated and subject to major chemical and biological changes.

Clague, who first visited Kluane in 1980, says that groundwater may keep the Slims River flowing to some degree. He notes that there is an engineering solution to this latest development – diverting the flow of water from the Duke River, which flowed into Kluane Lake in ancient times, back into the lake.

Recently collapsed ice blocks in the ice-walled canyon at the terminus of the Kaskawulsh Glacier. Increasing meltwater from the glacier has carved a new path, with water flow now heading west into the Gulf of Alaska rather than north into the Bering Sea.

Recently collapsed ice blocks in the ice-walled canyon at the terminus of the Kaskawulsh Glacier. Increasing meltwater from the glacier has carved a new path, with water flow now heading west into the Gulf of Alaska rather than north into the Bering Sea. JIM BEST/UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS

“It can be done, and it would be costly,” says Clague. “But when you add it all up, we can’t afford all the engineering solutions that are going to come up across the world as a result of climate change.”

Established in 1972, Kluane National Park attracts hikers, climbers, sports fishermen, and tourists. In 1965, Robert F. Kennedy climbed the 13,944-foot-high mountain that now bears his name. Caravans of tourists regularly pass through the park along the Alaska Highway.

Dramatic landscape changes are a fact of life in this part of the world, as Garry Clarke can attest. Before global warming really kicked in, he was there in the 1960s when the Steele Glacier surged so quickly that glaciologists nicknamed it the Galloping Glacier. And back in the late 17th century, the Slims had once flowed the other way and had drained Kluane rather than filling it up.

But Clarke and Clague, as well as ecologists Ryan Danby of Queen’s University and David Hik of the University of Alberta, see the recent developments in a different and more disturbing light — that of rapid,  human-caused climate change.

Danby and Hik have worked in the park for decades, tracking the growth rates and migration of trees and woody shrubs into south-facing alpine slopes and tundra valleys. An increase in shrub growth may not sound that significant when compared to the advance of trees such as spruce, which are moving higher up in the alpine country and closer to the Arctic coast as the climate warms. But shrubs such as alder, willow, and dwarf birch grow a lot faster than trees and shade out sunshine that lichens, mosses, and other alpine/tundra plants need to thrive during a growing season that is often measured in weeks rather than months.

‘For me, this is a metaphor for what is happening in the rest of the world,’ says one researcher.

The changes in vegetation are already driving Dall sheep, caribou, collared pikas, and hoary marmots into increasingly shrinking tundra and alpine ecosystems. Caribou can adapt, but they will have to compete with moose and deer. Pikas and marmots are unlikely to adapt because their fate — and feeding habits — are closely linked to alpine and tundra ecosystems.

The recent advance of the spruce bark beetle is having similar impacts on Kluane’s boreal forest, which is home to wolves, lynx, snowshoe hares, grizzlies, moose, and many nesting birds. Beetle outbreaks have occurred in the past in Kluane. One that occurred in the 1940s was probably linked to wood harvesting that was done to build the Haines Highway. But as big as that outbreak was, the beetles infested only a tenth of the forest area that they have attacked since the 1990s.

Ecologist Stan Boutin of the University of Alberta and population ecologist Charley Krebs, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, agree that climate change is dramatically altering the ecosystem in  and around Kluane park.  They and University of Toronto scientist Rudy Boonstra have spent more than 100 years between them studying many of the region’s animals. The challenge for them is linking the changes in the Kluane area to climatic shifts because climate in the region is so variable. Other factors, such as predation and food availability, also play an important role. Snowshoe hare cycles, for example, are linked to the stress they suffer while being preyed upon by lynx, wolves, owls, and coyotes, whose numbers in the sub-Arctic are rising.

Less input from the Slims River has lowered the water level of Kluane Lake, the largest lake in the Yukon, exposing sediments and creating dust storms.

Less input from the Slims River has lowered the water level of Kluane Lake, the largest lake in the Yukon, exposing sediments and creating dust storms. JIM BEST/UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS

“If there’s one thing that I’ve learned since I started working in the Kluane region in 1988 is that this is a resilient ecosystem,” says Hik. “Neither the glaciers nor the Slims River are going to come back. But we have seen that some animals such as collared pikas, which I thought at one point were on their way out, are making a comeback. So there is hope, if we can figure out a way of slowing climate change.”

Scientists say that increased research funding from the Canadian government is needed to better understand this rapidly changing region. “If we are not monitoring, we are very likely going to miss events that can fundamentally change an ecosystem, like this case of river piracy is likely to do,” says Hik.

Clague wants to return to Kluane to better understand how breaches in the glacial barrier will impact ecosystems on both sides of the former divide separating the Slims from the Kaskawulsh River. He and other scientists may also collaborate with biologists to determine how the piracy of the Slims River will alter life in one of the largest alpine lakes on the continent.

“It’s rare for a scientist like me to be on the scene of a threshold event such as this,” says Clague. “For me, this is a metaphor for what is happening in the rest of the world. What we need to do is to get society and politicians to pay closer attention.”

Squirrel pups, mountains and…curling!

The new season has begun and squirreling is well under way! The new crew has become fully integrated into the wonderful and unique world that is squirrel camp. Snow is still piled high and we dare not risk trudging through the fresh snow without our snowshoes or else risk disappearing into a tree well up to our hips. The chilly weather and high levels of snow have made for a slightly slower start to the season, but squirrel activity is starting to pick up and already we have had the pleasure of going to two squirrel nests to successfully find pups! This week the icicles are starting to drip and before we know it we will madly be clambering from tree to tree trying to keep track of the newest members inhabiting the grids.

Morning sun glistening off Sulphur Lake

This Sunday the squirrelers partook in a curling bonspiel family fun day in Haines Junction. What better classic Canadian thing to do than to go curling in the Yukon!  To take full advantage of the beautiful day off, we woke up early to explore the nearby Sulphur lake and went on a speed hike on the Dezadeash trail in Haines Junction.

After fulfilling our daily dose of fresh air and mountain views, we took to the curling-converted hockey rink in town. Hoping to rely heavily on the one curler in our crew (varsity curler from U of G!), we took to the ice in our finest curling cloths (aka. tuck taped jackets, Carhartt overalls and hiking boots). After a few slips, tumbles and splits, the crew slowly got the hang of lunging across the ice pushing a 45lb rock.

Squirrel crew waiting in anticipation for their turn to slide down the ice.

Getting some practice in before the start of the game!

Taking a lunch break before things got serious, we scarfed down the free hotdogs (much to the great delight of the non-vegetarians at camp), and eyed the impressive curling trophy sitting on a nearby table. We were already eagerly planning where to display it in the cookshack should we win it. The curling game got started, and much to the delight of two Americans on our crew, they left the curling rink wearing 2 gold medals around their necks (let’s call it beginners luck 😉 ). The varsity curler on our crew came so close to drawing to “the button”, which would have gotten us the trophy. New goal for next year! Camp will be looking extra clean soon with the sweeping practice.  But she did win us some bacon and oranges due to her curling knowledge in the trivia quiz, which in many of the crew’s eyes is better than a trophy 🙂 We finished our day off some much desired showers, laundry and tasty pub food in Haines Junction. We headed back to camp with the sun setting over the beautiful Kluane Mountains, stomachs full and gold medals glistening.

Post by Brynlee Thomas (KRSP field coordinator, University of Alberta)

Beautiful mountain views from the Dezadeash Trail in Haines Junction.Brynlee Thomas

 

Using playback of territorial calls to investigate mechanisms of kin discrimination in red squirrels

A little while back, I did a Master’s degree at the University of Guelph with Prof. Andrew McAdam. I worked on the Kluane Red Squirrel Project, a collaborative project between several universities in Canada and the U.S. This long-term project was started nearly 30 years ago by Prof. Stan Boutin at the University of Alberta. The project has involved many undergraduate, graduates, and post-docs over the years studying a variety of ecological and evolutionary questions on a population of red squirrels in Kluane, Yukon.

  • A red squirrel in Kluane, Yukon, one of the individuals in the study population.

For my Master’s project, I was interested in red squirrel territorial behavior and the vocalizations, known as rattles, used to defend their territories. Red squirrel rattles are individually unique and have been shown to be used to discriminate kin, though the mechanism underlying this ability is unknown. In a recently published paper in Behavioral Ecology, I sought to distinguish between the mechanisms of ‘prior association’, where animals learn the phenotypes of kin they associate with early in life, and ‘phenotype matching’, where animals use a template to match phenotypes, thereby allowing them to recognize kin without an association early in life. I recorded rattles from squirrels in the field, and used those recordings in playback trials to measure the behavioural responses of squirrels to rattles from familiar kin, unfamiliar kin, and non-kin. One of the major benefits of the Kluane Red Squirrel project is that there is pedigree information for each squirrel, which means that we know who their mother and father is and who their siblings are. Without this information, this project would not have been possible, and full pedigree information is difficult to obtain for wild populations of animals.

  • Recording rattles from squirrels in the field to use in the playback trials

For red squirrels, familiar kin consisted of pair of squirrels that shared a natal nest (e.g. mother-offspring pairs and siblings from the same litter), and unfamiliar kin consisted of pairs of squirrels that did not share a natal nest (e.g. father-offspring pairs, siblings from different litters). Initial analyses revealed that red squirrels did not discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar kin, but also did not discriminate between kin and non-kin, despite previous evidence indicating this capability. Post-hoc analyses showed that a squirrel’s propensity to rattle in response to playback depended on an interaction between relatedness and how the playback stimuli had been recorded. Rattles used as the playback stimuli were either recorded from squirrels as they moved freely around their territories (unsolicited), or from squirrels as they were released from a trap or in response to a broadcast rattle (provoked). Red squirrels discriminated between rattles from close kin (relatedness coefficient of at least 0.5) and rattles from less related kin or non-kin (relatedness coefficient of less than 0.5) when the rattles were recorded from provoked squirrels. Squirrels did not exhibit kin discrimination in response to rattles that had been recorded from unprovoked squirrels.

This figure show the probability of a rattle response from the subject squirrel during the playback period by relatedness coefficient calculated from the pedigree and the collection method of obtaining the rattle stimulus. Unsolicited rattles were recorded from squirrels moving freely around their territories (n = 67 trials), and provoked rattles (n = 38 trials) were recorded from squirrels as they emerged from a live-trap or from squirrels responding to a rattle playback

This is potentially quite interesting, but it is important to note that this relationship was identified through exploratory post hoc analyses and needs to be tested more rigorously. If these results are robust, however, they would suggest that a squirrel’s physiological state might influence the structure of its rattles, including those individually distinctive structural features that are presumably used in discrimination. This raises interesting questions about what kind of information may be contained in the rattles and suggests that rattles may reflect the current state of stress or aggressiveness of the squirrel.

Photos and post by Julia Shonfield

Julia Shonfield, Jamieson C. Gorrell, David W. Coltman, Stan Boutin, Murray M. Humphries, David R. Wilson, Andrew G. McAdam. 2016. Using playback of territorial calls to investigate mechanisms of kin discrimination in red squirrels. Behavioral Ecology arw165. doi: 10.1093/beheco/arw165.

The abstract and a link to the full text can be found here:

If you are unable to access the article but are interested in reading it, you can email me at julia.shonfield@gmail.com and I can provide you with a copy.

Field Assistants Required 2017- Kluane Red Squirrel Project, Yukon, Canada

We are looking for volunteers to assist with fieldwork for a number of different time periods: (a) 10 March- 30 April/15-May (b) 1 May-15 July, and (c) 1 September – 15 October. We will also have two positions that extend from 10 March to 15 August.

The positions are part of a long-term study of red squirrel ecology, evolutionary biology and physiology. As a member of the study, assistants will be involved with monitoring the reproduction and survival of individuals. Fieldwork will involve live-trapping and handling of animals, radio-telemetry, behavioural observation, and climbing trees to find young in nests. Some positions will also require handling for physiological assays (e.g., blood sampling) This is an excellent opportunity to gain experience working with a collaborative research team on a long-term study of a wild mammal.

All fieldwork is carried against the beautiful backdrop of southwestern Yukon, Canada. We will be staying at a rustic field station two hours from Whitehorse, and ~30 min to the nearest town (Haines Junction). Food and accommodation are provided. Volunteers are required to provide for their own travel to Edmonton, Alberta; however, travel from Edmonton to the field station (and back again!) is provided.

Training will be provided and no experience is necessary. An on-site head technician will coordinate the project, in coordination with the PIs. Candidates should have an interest in a number of the following (the more the better!): ecology, evolutionary biology, wildlife, field biology, and animal behaviour. The field camp is remote and low tech (no showers, cell phone service, or internet), so successful applicants must enjoy the outdoors and be able to remain a positive and responsible team member under relatively isolated and demanding conditions. Candidates must be in good physical condition, be willing to climb trees, and have an enthusiasm for learning. We work on ‘squirrel time’, which often involves long work days; as such, applicants must have a strong work ethic. That said, the atmosphere at squirrel camp is friendly and inclusive, and this area is one of the most beautiful in Canada. All nationalities are welcome.

If you wish to apply for one of these posts then please send a CV with a cover letter and contact details for three references (with e-mail addresses), by email to Brynlee Thomas (brynlee@ualberta.ca), by January 10, 2017. Please also indicate the time period(s) you are interested in.

An end of season thank you from Andrea Wishart, KRSP Ph.D. student and 2016 fall head tech

 

screen-shot-2016-10-19-at-4-12-22-pmMount Decoeli across from Kloo Pond (close to the KRSP camp). Photo taken by Andrea Wishart. 

The H-bars have been hung up and the bright orange trapping vests have been tucked away, and with that, another squirreling year has come and gone. We tracked squirrels through the seasons, from the arrival of spring core crew in early March to the last squirreler standing in mid-October. A huge thank you to all of the hard working people, from the newbies learning to squirrel for the first time, the returning techs who showed us the ropes, and all the other KRSP students who helped guide and support us!

As someone who arrived at our beloved Squirrel Camp a brand new squirreler in March as bright eyed and bushy tailed as any of our squirrels, and who ended the year as fall Head Tech, I would personally like to thank everyone who trained me early on and who helped me make my job in the fall so much easier and fun! Thanks to Brynlee for coordinating logistics from Edmonton and making sure we always had working equipment (and drained dunnies…), Eve for doing a fantastic job as Head Tech throughout the summer, Jess for training us on midden cone counts and keeping us motivated throughout, and the KRSP PIs for keeping this project rolling all these years (and especially Stan, who also gave us the gift of insulated floors this fall). Squirrel Camp is an incredible place, and everyone who comes through knows that it’s the people that are a part of it that make it that way.

Raise a spruce cone to 2016!

– Andrea Wishart

 

Reflections of the 2016 season working at squirrel camp

Time for a retrospective; I may be writing this from back south in Guelph, but looking through these photos is making me feel like I’m right back at Squirrel Camp again. I’m a new contributor to this blog; I’m just starting my MSc on the project, but I was up in the field for the last six months working as a technician on the core data collection. This was actually my second year up at camp, but my stay was substantially longer and this time I got to overlap more with the winter crew, which was awesome.

Luckily for me, I really love the cold and snow. If that weren’t the case, then Yukon in March might not have been quite as enjoyable as I found it. There were definitely some difficulties that came along with – having to snowshoe everywhere you walk, not being able to feel your fingers 75% of the time – but we also got so many quintessential Yukon experiences, like volunteering at a sled dog race and seeing the northern lights nearly every night.

jack_sled

The worst part of the year at camp, in my opinion, is the transition season in the late winter when everything is melting and there are mud and puddles everywhere you look. That passes, though, and then all the leaves emerge seemingly overnight and it’s spring out of nowhere.

And with spring comes babies – lots and lots of baby squirrels. It’s the best part of being at camp by far, getting to tag and weigh all the juveniles. Finding the nests and retrieving the pups usually isn’t too hard, but sometimes it takes a little more effort or you get a couple surprises. Twice this year I was looking into a nest and had northern flying squirrels jump out at me instead of the red squirrel pups I was expecting, which is (as you might expect) quite the surprise.

jack_babysquirrel

The first week of May marked the last time I remember seeing a star at night until the beginning of August. Summer in Kluane is a time of early mornings and late evenings, and if you don’t adjust to sleeping while the sun is still up then you’re going to end up very sleep deprived. Although I missed seeing the aurora at night, there’s something to be said for never needing artificial illumination for three months straight.

It wasn’t all work, all the time, at camp this year. We made the most of our days off and Friday and did as many hikes as we could. One of my favourites this year was Sheep Mountain overlooking Kluane Lake – I had tried it last year and had to stop partway up, so I was excited to do it properly and get all the way to the summit. We did it mid-August, so not only was it a beautiful view but it also made an excellent send off for some of the technicians that left soon after that.

jack-mtn

All in all, I think these past six months in Kluane were some of the best (and most sleep deprived) I’ve had in a long time. I’m already looking forward to heading back up again this coming su mmer to work on my own research.

Hoping all your squirrels are trappable,

Jack Robertson

MSc student, University of Guelph

Field Assistants Required – North American red squirrels in Kluane, Yukon, Canada

MaleRattlingWe are looking for volunteers to assist with fieldwork for a number of different time periods: (a) 1 March-30 April/15-May (b) 1 May-15 July, and (c) 1 September-15 October. We will also have two positions that extend from 1 March to 15-Aug.

 

The positions are part of a long-term study of red squirrel ecology, evolutionary biology and physiology. As a member of the study, assistants will be involved with monitoring the reproduction and survival of individuals. Fieldwork will involve live-trapping and handling of animals, radio-telemetry, behavioural observation, and climbing trees to find young in nests. Some positions will also require handling for physiological assays (e.g., blood sampling) This is an excellent opportunity to gain experience working with a collaborative research team on a long-term study of a wild mammal.

 

All fieldwork is carried against the beautiful backdrop of southwestern Yukon, Canada. We will be staying at a rustic field station two hours from Whitehorse, and ~30 min to the nearest town (Haines Junction). Food and accommodation are provided. Volunteers are required to provide for their own travel to Edmonton, Alberta; however, travel from Edmonton to the field station (and back again!) is provided.

 

SONY DSC

Photo by Jessica Haines

Training will be provided and no experience is necessary. An on-site head technician will coordinate the project, in coordination with the PIs. Candidates should have an interest in a number of the following (the more the better!): ecology, evolutionary biology, wildlife, field biology, and animal behaviour. The field camp is remote and low tech (no showers, cell phone service, or internet), so successful applicants must enjoy the outdoors and be able to remain a positive and responsible team member under relatively isolated and demanding conditions. Candidates must be in good physical condition, be willing to climb trees, and have an enthusiasm for learning. We work on ‘squirrel time’, which often involves long work days; as such, applicants must have a strong work ethic. That said, the atmosphere at squirrel camp is friendly and inclusive, and this area is one of the most beautiful in Canada. All nationalities are welcome.

 

If you wish to apply for one of these posts then please send a CV with a cover letter and contact details for three references (with e-mail addresses), by email to Ainsley Sykes (contact info below), by January 30, 2016. Please also indicate the time period(s) you are interested in.

 

Contact: Ainsley Sykes (Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta)