Squirrels are adventurous and bold, smart, adorable in their antics, adapt to wide ranges of fragmented habitat, drive bird feeders crazy with their raids, play a crucial role in balancing insect populations, spread seeds in forests and fields and now, with the changes of global climate, they are helping scientists understand how nature is adapting.
For all this and more, January 21 has been designated Squirrel Appreciation Day, an idea created by wildlife rehabilitator Christy Hargrove in Asheville, North Carolina.
Hargrove points out that you probably won’t find any events to attend, but you can celebrate by putting food out, or learning something new about squirrels.
There are more than 300 species of squirrel. In the boreal forests of Canada’s Yukon Territory the red squirrel females are giving their secrets to scientists who are studying females endowing their offspring with genetic changes that may help their species adapt to global warming.
In 2003, a 10-year study found that female red squirrels were giving birth 18 days earlier than their great-grandmothers did, an average of six days earlier in each generation as temperatures in the region have risen about 4 degrees F during the past three decades. The increase has also lead to an abundance of pine cones that prefer drier climate.
Researchers monitored 664 females, including 325 followed throughout their lifetimes and found that natural selection is at work. Babies born earlier, some in the dead of winter as February ends in the Yukon, will be stronger and there will be less competition for territory adults left vacant the previous winter.
The discovery marked the first documentation of genetic changes in a mammal to climate change.
Red squirrels, about half the size of their plump gray squirrel relatives in the east, living in a vast empire from the northern tree line of Alaska and Canada south through the Rocky Mountains and into mountain peaks of Arizona and Midwest and Appalachian forests, squirrels have been given different names such as piney, barking squirrel, mountain boomer and chickaree for their scolding alarm.
When they’re not busy doing their job in nature, they seem to have a mischievous streak when it comes to human beings. Twice, in 1987 and in 1994, squirrels brought down the NASDAQ stock market, a nationwide network of telephones and computers where some 300 million shares are traded each day. In 1987 a playful squirrel in Trumbull, Conn, shut down the national Association of Securities dealers’ automatic quotation service for 82 minutes, keeping about 20 million shares from being traded. Seven years later, in 1994, a squirrel interrupted trading for 34 minutes by chewing through an electric company’s power line and the stock exchange’s backup power system in Trumbull.
Visit the National Wildlife Federation for a list of ways you can celebrate squirrels or become a citizen scientist by participating in Project Squirrel. You can also visit Squirrels.org for a handful of information from building squirrel friendly feeders and rescue to humane squirrel control.
Photo credit: creative commons