Postdoctoral Position in Evolutionary Ecology of North American Red Squirrels

We are seeking a postdoctoral researcher with expertise in evolutionary ecology and quantitative genetics to investigate the importance of social interactions to adaptation in North American red squirrels.

This position will be based at the University of Guelph, but will be part of the Kluane Red Squirrel Project involving close collaboration among 4 other institutions in North America. The position will primarily involve the analysis of our existing data collected over the past 25 years in up to six populations in the southwestern Yukon Territory, Canada. We have extensive individual life history, food abundance and fitness data for these populations, with growing personality, energetics, endocrine and vocalization datasets. An extensive pedigree has been compiled and all data are spatially referenced within our study area. Furthermore, an ongoing food manipulation experiment has been performed on between 1 and 3 populations since 2004.

Salary is available for two years ($40,000 per year) based on continued satisfactory performance, but high-caliber applicants will also be encouraged to apply for a prestigious NSERC Banting award. The start-date is negotiable.

Interested candidates should provide a copy of their CV, including contact information for 3 references, as well as a one-page summary of potential research questions to Andrew McAdam. Applications are due by July 1, 2015.

Old squirrels are conformists

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A squirrel in the ‘Thunderdome’, photo by Amanda Kelley.

Biologists working in the Yukon have discovered that young red squirrels’ personalities become more similar over time. “Young squirrels have really extreme personalities,” explains lead researcher Amanda Kelley. “But as they mature, their behaviour becomes more average. Really aggressive squirrels tone it down over time, while meek ones become more hostile.”

The researchers assessed squirrel personality by capturing individuals and temporarily placing them in a ‘thunderdome’, essentially a white box with a clear lid. “We video the squirrel’s behaviour in this new environment, and after a set amount of time, show the squirrel a mirror.” The bushy-tailed rodents believe the mirror to be another squirrel of the same size and respond accordingly.

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Amanda Kelley with the Thunderdome in the background, photo by Amanda Kelley.

Squirrels react to the mirror in very different ways. Remarks Kelley, “Some individuals are really confrontational and immediately rush the mirror, tapping it with their little paws, while others retreat to the furthest corner and avoid eye contact.” These thunderdome trials give insight into an individual squirrel’s personality. The mirror test reveals how aggressive a squirrel is, while the time a squirrel initially spends scurrying about gives insight into how active it is. Kelley’s team conducted personality tests for each squirrel at two ages: first, when newly emerged from its mother’s nest, and again eight months later, when squirrels were fully mature.

As with aggression, the researchers found that a squirrel’s activity became less extreme with age. “The busiest squirrels slowed down the most. In fact, very few increased at all,” says Kelley. This suggests that, on the whole, squirrels mellow with age.

A squirrel checks himself out in the Thunderdome mirror, photo by Amanda Kelley.

Kelley and her colleagues hypothesize that having flexible personalities is important for young squirrels. “After a juvenile leaves the nest, it has to strike out on its own and find a territory,” says Kelley. “It’s a very dangerous period, where certain behaviours can have severe consequences.” As squirrels mature, extreme personality types may carry a disadvantage, meaning their success may depend on finding a happy medium between keeping their cool and sticking up for themselves.

The findings were published in the journal Behaviour. Contact Amanda Kelley, Field Coordinator for the Kluane Red Squirrel Project, for interviews or more information.

Theses defences!

Kayla Deasley (University of Guelph) defended her MSc in August 2014. Her thesis entitled “Red squirrels cause balancing selection on the length of the white spruce cone” is available here Deasley_Kayla_MSc_Thesis

Kristin van Katwyk (University of Alberta) defended her MSc in the Spring of 2014. Her thesis entitled “Empirical validation of closed population abundance estimates and spatially explicit density estimates using a censused population of North American red squirrels” is available here Van Katwyk_Kristin_Spring 2014

Congratulations to Kayla and Kristin!

Canada Day

DSC_0951 Think of a float in a parade. What comes to mind? Streamers, balloons, bright colours, people in costumes, loud music, confetti…maybe not an F-250 covered in cardboard. But when at Squirrel Camp, one must make do with what one has available for decorations, and this mainly consists of cardboard boxes and Sharpie ink. Our monster of an F-250, dubbed “Sasquatch”, got all dressed up to be included in the Canada Day parade in Haines Junction this past Tuesday. Sasquatch found itself with a lovely large pair of cardboard squirrel ears complete with ear tags, whiskers made of big white pipe cleaners on its headlights, and even an improvised squirrel tail affixed to the trailer hitch (the success of making an accurate taDSC_0954il was questionable, but after inhaling as many Sharpie fumes as we did in the process of its creation, we felt it had to be used).

Our bizarre squirrel/truck hybrid made its way along the two main streets of Haines Junction (this essentially encompasses the entirety of the 4th largest municipality in the Yukon) amidst many other impressive floats, including the truck behind us complete with a swimming pool in the bed! Needless to say, many efforts were made to soak the squirrelers in the back of Sasquatch. I am proud to say that I escaped, but I am not sure that everyone was so fortunate. Other participants in the parade included the Lions Club with a massive, colourful float pulled by a tractor, the Haines Junction fire department, a number of young cyclists and several animal participants. A very well-dressed dog with Canada-themed anklets later won an award for being so sporting.

The parade was followed up by a delicious barbecue thanks to the Lions Club, plenty of fun and games out on the lawn, cotton candy and even the unveiling of a pair of new murals made by the local elementary school. For a town of less than a thousand people, Haines Junction really pulled out all the stops this July 1st! It was an incredibly fun atmosphere, and a couple of us squirrelers even joined in on a nearby informal football game. When I say “informal”, I mean lacking in rules and run by twelve-year-old boys. And so Squirrel Camp did not let go of childhood this Canada Day! We hope you enjoyed your own festivities on July 1st this year. Squirrel Camp will be back again for next year’s parade, with plans to stockpile some cones to use as a more natural, boreal confetti.

–          Sarah Nason, U of Alberta

Kluane Chilkat International Bike Race

If you have ever been to Squirrel Camp, you know that it attracts a group of hard working, incredibly athletic and borderline nuts (ha!) individuals. No event showcases all of these traits quite as completely as the Kluane to Chilkat International Bike Relay. This year the Squirrel Camp team was stacked with a whole three regular bikers, and five members who may or may not have seen a bike in the past year. The 8-person team and its two cheerleaders rolled up to the bike race in homemade T-shirts, hanging out of a massive F-250 complete with a sign. Clearly, we were ready to crush and wow the competition with our incredible speed and our amazing cheers.

Our first biker exploded off of the start, putting Squirrel Camp decisively in the middle of the pack. The cheer squad was less confident. At first we were unsure of our cheering style. Would we just scream loudly? Would we say good job and clap? Would we throw our hands into the air and fist pump? All of our indecision was resolved when the man parked in front of us pulled a mysterious wooden box from the back of his truck. From this box he removed a glorious, magical instrument…bagpipes. With these he serenaded the first few bikers to the delights of the cheering crowd and bikers alike. Now the Squirrelers knew how we would cheers…we would dance!

For the next eight legs, as we passed through one time zone, a territory, a province and a state, and the scenery graded from mountains to alpine to Alaskan rainforest our dance moves evolved. Our cheers where no longer reserved for just our team. Along the way we picked a few lucky bikers to gift with our incredibly uplifting cheers. Their confused expressions just made us cheer louder and daSONY DSCnce and bounce around more fiercely. As we arrived in Alaska and the last leg, we had reached the height of our cheering potential. Now SONY DSCwe were truly creative. As I had the last leg I was lucky enough to have a bikers view of these glorious Squirrelers. As I rode by the team the first time I was greeted with a line of Squirrelers doing pushups…sort of. The second time around was a human pyramid of epic squirrely proportions.

If there had been a team spirit award we would have won hands down. However, awards where only given based on speed. We came in very close, getting 61st out of….65. GO SQUIRRELERS! Not bad for a bunch of crazy bush people!

 

–          Naomi, McGill University