Q&A: UA biologist talks Mount Graham red squirrel conservation

A Mount Graham red squirrel perches on a forest branch and nibbles on seeds while being observed by biologists. (Photo by: UA Conservation Research Laboratory’s Mount Graham Red Squirrel research program team.)

Ever been scolded by a squirrel? Dr. John Koprowski, of the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment, has. Since he was a young boy, Koprowski has been researching and studying animal behavior and conservation. But during his time at UA, his emphasis has been based on squirrels from around the world.

One squirrel species Koprowski has researched locally is the Mount Graham red squirrel, an endangered subspecies of the American red squirrel. This species was thought to have gone completely extinct in the 1950s, but had actually survived in small numbers and was rediscovered 30 years later. Their numbers have been dwindling for years but, due to last year’s 48,000-acre wildfire, the population went from 250 to 35.

Researchers on Koprowski’s team have been observing the squirrels’ behavior for years by live-trapping squirrels, putting radio collars on them, studying where young ones choose to live when they leave their mothers and observing their pinecone piles that they guard with their lives. Koprowski himself got too close to an angry mother Mount Graham red squirrel’s territory once, hence the scolding. Despite these incidents, Koprowski and his team are using these observations and data to deduce how to help the Mount Graham red squirrel from going extinct.

Q: Could you tell us how you knew you wanted to become a biologist?

A: I was always very interested in the natural world and it was the thing that always excited me about any place I went. For me, watching animals and being in natural areas was just something I always enjoyed. I went to Ohio State University for zoology in my undergraduate degree, and I realized that I could go on to be a professor or a research biologist somewhere. Around junior year when I was 20-years-old was when I realized that I really wanted to become a biologist.

University of Arizona mammalogist, conservation biologist and squirrel expert, Dr. John Koprowski has been working on the Mount Graham red squirrel research program for the UA Conservation Research Laboratory for nearly two decades. (Photo by: Nancy Koprowski.)

Q: Could you explain how you got started with the Mount Graham red squirrel project and what you found out about them?

A: In 2000, I came on board and right away suggested we apply other techniques to the Mount Graham situation, such as capturing the animals with greater success, putting radio collars on them and following them around. It enables us to figure out what kind of habitat they prefer, it enables us to figure out how much habitat they need and it enables us to determine if there are specific needs that are not being met. Usually, they prefer bigger trees that can support them and trees that have lots of other trees around them so they have lots of escape routes. By finding out what they prefer and their role in their habitat, we have been able to build up our knowledge base, and we’ve found their survivorship is the real problem and we think that’s related to relatively poor habitat quality.

Q: What do you think is the importance of understanding what causes the endangerment of the Mount Graham red squirrel or other smaller mammals?

A: When you’re talking about a species that is disappearing, or a significant portion of the population disappearing, it tells us that something’s going wrong; that there’s an issue with the system. I think that’s where my real interest as a scientist and even a concerned citizen comes in. I want to know how the world is changing and how we might mitigate those changes. That’s kind of the big overarching reason. Often with these more secretive species like the Mount Graham red squirrel, there are basic things we don’t understand yet. By focusing on a single species, or a smaller group of species, especially in these lesser-known species, you learn a bunch of very basic information that can be applied to the conservation of the species, which is why it’s important to understand the problems these species are encountering.

Q: Over your years working with the Mount Graham red squirrel, do you have any anecdotes to share?

A Mount Graham red squirrel assesses its territory as it carries forest brush in its mouth to construct a nest. (Photo by: UA Conservation Research Laboratory’s Mount Graham Red Squirrel Research Program team.)

A: They have kind of a baseball pitcher’s mound made of pinecones that they store up. They go up, cut them down and put them in this pile. They defend it all winter long and so it’s the only way they’re going to be able to survive the winter. If you walk into their territory they will come running right up to you and scold you with squirrel chattering. It’s one of my favorite things, because it’s when I think of them as a survivor and see the fighter in them. I was observing a mother squirrel and her young and all of a sudden she started barreling down the tree and scolded me right in my ear—and they can be quite loud.

Q: Why do you think humans should take an interest in smaller mammals and in particular the Mount Graham red squirrel?

A: When you have things like small mammals, they often have very important roles in these systems. In many cases, like the Mount Graham red squirrel, they are seedeaters and dispersers, so they’re really critical to forest continuation and persistence. As we learn more about a species we start to learn more about the larger system. I think in a general sense, that’s important. And anytime you’re losing a species it tells you something’s going on even if you don’t understand the components and the influences on this yet, it tells you the system we thought was working has a change happening that may or may not be natural. If there’s something wrong it gives us a warning or an early detection system.

Q: When we look at the Mount Graham red squirrels being threatened, how should we consider their effect on the environment?

A Mount Graham red squirrel chitters from its tree. (Photo by: UA Conservation Research Laboratory’s Mount Graham Red Squirrel Research Program team.)

A: In the case of Mount Graham Red squirrels, we know they’re very important in the distribution of seeds and the movement of seeds in the forest. The most important thing we’ve learned about how they connect to the system, though, is that these piles of cones they make for themselves for the winter are used by lots of other species. When you have a pile of cones for red squirrels, that pile means food. For some other animals that means food too, like chipmunks or some bird species. But for other species, it is habitat and structure. You’ll have smaller mammals like mice and shrews that burrow down and live in the habitat made by the red squirrels. And for lots of insects, the pinecones are very critical because they’re moist areas. All these other species were found more frequently near these piles of cones. They’re interesting by themselves, but we also now know that they influence other species and are an integral part of the species.

Q: Do you have anything else to add regarding the Mount Graham red squirrel?

A: We should appreciate the big picture. When people hear, “Oh, only 35 left? This is a species that is destined for extinction.” And that may be, but it’s our job is to try to prevent that and level the playing field and give it a chance. Especially because some of this problem is our doing—we’ve degraded it. I hope people wouldn’t give up on a species too soon, not only with red squirrels but other species as well. There have been cases where species have gotten down to a dozen or less in numbers and have been able to come back. They key is identifying the problems and rectifying those problems, so to me, the squirrels aren’t every giving up. I want people to realize we’re talking about survivors when we’re talking about most endangered species. Given all the things that are against them, you have individuals still around that are trying to survive and trying to persist.

Jessica Blackburn is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at blackburnj3@email.arizona.edu.

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