Field assistant position: Red squirrels in the Yukon, August-October 2019

One of my incredible assistants will be starting a PhD in September, so I am seeking someone keen to work with North American red squirrels as part of the Kluane Red Squirrel Project in the southwest Yukon, Canada from mid-August to mid-October.

The assistant will work directly with one other technician in the field on “Cache Crew”, our group that studies red squirrel caching behaviour and the balance squirrels strike between storing energy-off body as cached food and on-body as fat deposits using behavioural observation, biologging technology (accelerometers), MRI-like technology to scan living squirrels for body composition, and good old fashioned counting in the field. The crew lives with and works alongside up to ~15 other people working on core data collection and other graduate student crews.

Please contact me at andrea.wishart [at] usask.ca for more information.

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North American red squirrel pup at ~25 days old. Photo: AE Wishart

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SURVEY INVITATION: grad student experiences in long-term research

Hi all!

I am conducting a research study entitled: Graduate Student Perspectives and Experiences in Long-Term Ecological Research Projects and would like to invite you to share this survey invitation with your current and former graduate students who have conducted graduate research on long-term ecological research projects, and if this criterion applies to you as well I encourage you to participate yourself!

The purpose of this survey is to investigate the experiences of current graduate students and former graduate students who conduct(ed) graduate research in conjunction with long-term ecological research projects, defined here as projects that follow individual organisms within a wild population and measure the same core data types (variables) over many years and which typically generate long-term data suitable for answering questions about changes in wild populations (of plants, animals, or other living beings) and environments. This survey seeks to gauge the range of perspectives and experiences of graduate students involved in such research, to be discussed in a symposium regarding data management in long-term ecological research.

Eligibility: Participants must have conducted some graduate level research in conjunction with a long-term project as described above. Further details, including the participation consent form, can be found following the survey link hosted by the University of Saskatchewan through Survey Monkey.

Ethics: This study has received approval from the Research Ethics Board at the University of Saskatchewan.

Survey link: https://www.surveymonkey.ca/r/ZXVVH8D

I’m looking forward to sharing the results at our upcoming symposium on data management in long-term research at the CSEE annual meeting in Fredericton, New Brunswick in August 2019.

Field assistants needed in Rocky Mountains to work with Columbian Ground Squirrels

Please click here to access a PDF advertising multiple positions to work with Columbian Ground Squirrels in Alberta for Summer 2019! If you want more information, contact the email address listed at the bottom.

ADDITIONAL OPPORTUNITIES: I will be seeking 2 assistants to work on Red Squirrels (pictured below) in the Yukon, June-October 2019. Please contact me at andrea [dot] wishart [at] usask.ca to find out more. This will be ideal for 2019 graduates that will be available into the fall.IMG_2921-2-edited-1-WM

Field research opportunities

We will be looking to hire field research assistants for the June-October Cache Crew working with North American red squirrels in Kluane, Yukon soon! Get in touch with me (andrea dot wishart @usask.ca) to find out more, or watch this space for more details!

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A male red squirrel feeds in a spruce tree.

 

New article in Proceedings B! Litter sex ratios in red squirrels

I am very excited to announce our new paper is out in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences!

Wishart AE, Williams CT, McAdam AG, Boutin S, Dantzer B, Humphries MM, Coltman DW, Lane JE (2018) Is biasing offspring sex ratio adaptive? A test of Fisher’s principle across multiple generations of a wild mammal in a fluctuating environment. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 285(1891):

 

This paper means a lot to me for a few reasons, beyond the value of the reults. One, it’s my first ever first-author paper, and I’m so pleased for it to be in my beloved Kluane Red Squirrel Project study system with this team. Two, I learned so, so much about our data, R, and models in general. Three: it has its roots in some good old fashioned field musings!

During my first field season in 2016 in the Yukon working with red squirrels, I was on the spring nest team where we follow female pregnancies and try to pinpoint the exact date that each female gives birth to her pups. This means lots of telemetry, lots of snowshoeing, lots of tree climbing, but also the amazing experience of holding lots of day-old (and sometimes younger!) baby squirrels. When we find the nests, we count how many pups there are of each sex. It started to seem like many of the nests we were doing in one area had lots of litters of 2 males, 1 female, but that certainly wasn’t the rule and we did see a lot of variation around that. Sitting around in the cookshack, we started asking whether that was typical for red squirrels. And, what was the adult sex ratio of red squirrels anyways? We are lucky in the Kluane Red Squirrel Project to have a fully-enumerated population that we can ask these questions in. And even better, this project has been running for decades, meaning I could dive into the long-term records to find an answer over many, many years.

Of course, once one starts wading into the literature on sex ratio theory, one realizes that there is a huge body of work that already exists. While the reading list grew, it also sparked much more interesting, in-depth, and broadly interesting questions beyond a simple species-specific wondering. My coauthor, Dr Cory T Williams, who had been a post-doc on the project before I started and is now a professor at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, had started asking some similar questions about litter sex ratios in red squirrels himself, and so we got in touch and I began to build off the analyses he had already began. The valuable data, ideas, comments, and encouragement from the all of the authors helped immensely to make the manuscript a reality.

Given that the early ideas were born in the boreal forest of the southwest Yukon, it was fitting that I was in the field again when it came time to tackle reviewer comments (which were, to note, not only fair but incredibly constructive and immensely professional – this is the peer review environment I dream of). I managed to upload everything while sitting in our beloved pickup truck Ruby parked next to a ditch along the Alaska Highway – complete with dodgy internet signal, way too little sleep, way too much coffee, and all my current fieldwork on the brain. I had visits from both a moose and a great horned owl, the latter simply stared at me with big eyes and little sympathy while I pulled my hair out over another lost connection. But in the end, it was totally worth it.

I hope you get a chance to look at our paper! If you attended either Wildlife 70 in Peterborough, ON or CSEE 2017 in Victoria, BC, you might have caught the early versions of this work. With all the R scripting and model busting that goes into this kind of project, it is so cool to remember that it all originates from observing a few nests of newborn squirrels in the quiet wilderness of the Yukon. The photo is of me in the field gathering data about a litter (weighing & sexing) before we carefully replaced the pups back with mom, who will raise the these little naked darlings up to become beautiful, chattery red squirrels. •

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New article in American Entomologist

While I was in the field, our feature article on onychophora (“velvet worms”) led by Dr Nina Zitani at the University of Western Ontario was published in the summer issue of American Entomologist. Dr Zitani and coauthor Dr Greg Thorn teach a field course on tropical biology in the cloud forest of Ecuador, which is where we found onychophora in a new microhabitat (arboreal soil). We also found a caterpillar that shares very similar morphology and behaviour alongside a onychophoran itself in the same soil sample. Check out the article online for full-colour plates and access to a supplemental video showing the caterpillar and onychophoran interacting!

Zitani NM, Thorn RG, Hoyle M, Schulz JM, Steipe T, Bohorquez Ruiz Y, Sarquis-Adamson Y, Wishart AE (2018). An onychophoran and its putative lepidopteran mimic in the arboreal bryosphere of an Ecuadorian cloud forest. American Entomologist, 64(2). DOI: 10.1093/ae/tmy025

 

 

Fieldwork update from the Yukon

I’m officially 2 months into my field season that will likely last until mid-October, so it’s about time for an update!

This year, Cache Crew (myself and my field assistant Tessie, a Yukoner herself) has been working hard to find out which patches of boreal forest certain squirrels are calling home this year. For a very territorial, vocal animal like the red squirrel, this sounds easier than it is. Although most squirrels traditionally defend a territory centered around a single food cache called a “midden”, this year there is relatively little food for them and lower densities of squirrels. This means that the remaining squirrels are spreading out a bit more trying to look for food that will fill their bellies right now AND fill their larders to sustain them for the winter.

Once we narrow down where squirrels are living, we are estimating how many white spruce cones (their #1 food source) are growing in spruce trees on their territories to get an idea of what is available for the squirrels to harvest, and also estimating how many cones they have leftover in their middens from previous years. With this information, we know how much stored energy they have stashed in the ground in addition to the potential food energy they might be able to take advantage of.

Sesame Street’s high calibre of training in counting has proven to be quite useful for this PhD! One spruce cone – ah ah ah!

But wait – what about the energy they store on their bodies? Traditionally we have thought of red squirrels as not carrying much body fat, since they don’t hibernate and don’t seem to put on that much weight heading into fall (unlike the Eastern grey squirrel or any hibernating ground squirrel/marmot who you may have encountered as a roly-poly feeding machine during “fat squirrel season”). We’re using some cool technology this year that is typically reserved for medical testing to investigate whether the body fat percentage changes across the food caching season. Have you ever had an MRI or known someone who has? We are using the same technology in squirrel-size to find out! Unlike an MRI, the machine we have doesn’t give us pictures, but it does give us readouts of % body fat, % lean mass (like muscle), and water content. All of this is coming together to give us a dynamic picture of how red squirrels manage energy throughout the food-caching season here in the southwest Yukon!

I was fortunate to be invited to present this research-in-progress at a special symposium on Food Caching in the Wild at the annual Canadian Society for Ecology & Evolution this summer at the University of Guelph. The symposium, organized by Alex Sutton & Dr Ryan Norris, was a fantastic forum to swap food caching findings, and a lovely little break from fieldwork to put it all into perspective.

The fireweed is starting to go to seed and the aspens are beginning to turn gold. Just like the plants know that fall is coming, so do the squirrels. We are starting to see new spruce cones, heavy and purplish-green, stuffed into holes in squirrel middens, and more and more are noticing these tree dwellers scurrying down the spruce with cones in their mouths to bring to their underground storage tunnels.

Stay tuned for updates as we move into the last half of the field season – and importantly, images of fieldwork that my current internet connectivity won’t allow to be uploaded.

 

New article in The Londoner on rehabilitating wildlife

I recently wrote an article for The Londoner (London, ON) on behalf of Salthaven Wildlife Rehabilitation & Education Centre about the harm that may be done to wildlife when people take it upon themselves to try to rehabilitate an animal or keep wildlife in their homes.

As a former rehabilitation clinic volunteer and current animal behaviour researcher, I hope my insights into wildlife health and behaviour will help you be a better friend to wildlife:

“Salthaven’s Patient of the Week: Softening our impact, one baby animal at a time”