Old squirrels are conformists


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.


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.

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

Summer research and camp life is in full swing!

May 29, 2014 by Jordan S. Lange (Summer Squirreller 2014)

It has been an interesting week for squirrel research. We saw our first Grizzly bear just up the road from one of the grids. Lisa and Shannon kicked two flying squirrels out of a cavity when they were looking for a nest and Jess witnessed red squirrel infanticide which is cool but sad. A couple squirrels were found dead (predated on) on one of the grids.

Nests are crazy – some squirrels managed to move pups as we were climbing their trees so we had to follow them across grid.  A couple of squirrellers witnessed a grey jay steal a pup while another threatened the nest. We checked all the buckets on AG and took away all the peanut butter except for on the breeding female’s midden where we left 250g of peanut butter. On the way to do this, a lynx was spotted.

Trapping has been moved yet again and is now right after supper with only one check and we have had more success than we have had for a while.  One of the squirrels (White/Red) has become the camp squirrel, she is often seen running around with nest material, some stolen from camp itself.  The whole camp was restyled to discourage more of such pilfering.

Stan nest climbing (2)

Shannon and Hannes (part of the winter crew) left for Iceland on Sunday so camp felt a little empty but we also had some visitors. Stan came up for a week and climbed some trees that everyone thought were impossible. He even tied two trees together to get to a nest at the top of a snag. Jamie came to visit too and livened the camp up a lot.

Squirrel Camp restarted Frisbee Tuesdays with Kluane Base camp and we have been going there every week since to toss a frisbee around. Frisbee Tuesday was fun this week, although only six people played. At the end we were convinced to played rugby. It was hard to grasp the concept that you can run with the ball right after playing frisbee where you can’t move.

The hare crew arrived last week, and brought JD who has rapidly become the beloved camp dog. Over winter, Lisa caught a hare in a juvenile (small) trap. I’ve only seen pictures but it looked squished!

Manu will be leaving camp to go travelling with her sister. Jordan and Jess went fishing a couple of times but have yet to catch more than a rock and lake weed. The team for this year’s bike race from Haines Junction to Haines Alaska was decided on Thursday.  We hope to finish the race not dead last!