2018-09-07 / Front Page

A squirrel’s life

UNE students track ever-present rodent
By Abigail Worthing Staff Writer


University of New England Associate Professor Noah Perlut places a denim handling cone over the live trap, demonstrating to the students in his Project Squirrel class, how to properly handle and measure squirrels. Project Squirrel tracks six or seven squirrels a semester, placing a collar on each so that students can gather data throughout the school year. (Abigail Worthing photo) University of New England Associate Professor Noah Perlut places a denim handling cone over the live trap, demonstrating to the students in his Project Squirrel class, how to properly handle and measure squirrels. Project Squirrel tracks six or seven squirrels a semester, placing a collar on each so that students can gather data throughout the school year. (Abigail Worthing photo) When University of New England Associate Professor Noah Perlut was designing a field study course, he wracked his brain for the perfect specimen for his students to track. As an ornithologist, Perlut’s first instinct was a bird.

He thought of chickadees, perhaps, but they are small, fragile birds. He wanted something common, easy for students to track around campus. The final inspiration came from a simple question: Is the squirrel I see outside my window every day the same squirrel?

Perlut began researching grey squirrels and realized there wasn’t much information to be found about this common Maine animal.


For UNE’s Project Squirrel program, students track squirrels throughout the year, collecting data on their habits and movements. UNE Associate Professor Noah Perlut, above, enters information for a new squirrel, assigning a color and symbol so students can share the location of the squirrels with their classmates in real time on a GPS map. The map can be updated remotely using an app on students’ phones. (Abigail Worthing photo) For UNE’s Project Squirrel program, students track squirrels throughout the year, collecting data on their habits and movements. UNE Associate Professor Noah Perlut, above, enters information for a new squirrel, assigning a color and symbol so students can share the location of the squirrels with their classmates in real time on a GPS map. The map can be updated remotely using an app on students’ phones. (Abigail Worthing photo) “There really haven’t been many studies done on grey squirrels at all, but there’s never been a behavioral study of grey squirrels in the northeast,” Perlut said. “And they are so common here.”

And so Project Squirrel was born. The one credit course is offered every semester, with between 10 and 12 students taking part as “squirrelologists.”

University of New England student Rosaria Karis weighs the one-and-a-quarter-pound male squirrel in a denim handling cone, assisted by Professor Noah Perlut. The squirrel, once examined, tagged and collared, will be returned to where it was found and tracked throughout the semester. (Abigail Worthing photo)University of New England student Rosaria Karis weighs the one-and-a-quarter-pound male squirrel in a denim handling cone, assisted by Professor Noah Perlut. The squirrel, once examined, tagged and collared, will be returned to where it was found and tracked throughout the semester. (Abigail Worthing photo)
The class is sophomore level, and while only one semester is required, some will stay with the project for three years. Since the inception of the program in 2009, students have tracked more than 100 squirrels, using a tracking collar and telemetry to collect data. Students are expected to gather data on the squirrels three hours a week, on their own schedule, allowing the project to collect 36 hours a week of data. The project tracks six or seven squirrels a semester, which Perlut feels is a manageable number for participants in the class.

When a squirrel is captured in a live trap, students go through the initial intake of the animal.

During the first meeting of this semester’s class on Aug. 31, a squirrel had been trapped that morning outside of Decary Hall, which allowed students to have hands-on experience with the squirrels right away. To collect the initial data, Perlut utilizes a denim handling cone, fixed with Velcro along the seam to allow for certain portions to be undone individually. For example, one portion can be undone for tail measurement while another section can be undone to measure ears.

Perlut placed the large end of the denim cone over one end of the trap, while Rosaria Karis, a 21-year-old first time squirrelologist, blew gently on the squirrel to encourage it to run into the cone. The handling cone helps Perlut maneuver the squirrel in a humane way.

“This technique will work for any animal, from squirrel to bobcat. Just make sure their eyes are covered and their heart rate will slow right down,” Perlut told students, allowing them to each feel the heart rate immediately after the squirrel entered the handling cone, and again at the end of the exam so they could feel the difference between the initial high heart rate with the slower rate at the conclusion.

Students then took turns performing different parts of data collection, one measured the tail and feet, one applied a tag to its ear (similar to getting an ear pierced), and another placed the tracking collar on its neck.

Perlut gives detailed instructions, maneuvering the squirrel gently to help the students fulfill their individual tasks.

When the tail is measured, each student feels the tail one by one. Together they determine this is a one and a quarter pound male squirrel, who, based on his size and weight, was probably born either last spring or summer. When the squirrel’s collar had been placed, including a metal closure to ensure the squirrel’s nest mates do not pull the collar any tighter, the squirrel is then released back where it was trapped.

Students will spend the semester monitoring the squirrels and gathering data, and will perform experiments to discern more information on this common creature.

Last year, students performed an experiment regarding the nesting location of the squirrels. They tracked heat patterns between nests, which were located either inside the trees or on the branches, and found that nests inside the trees had a much more consistent temperature.

Students are also trying to find out the height at which a fall becomes fatal for squirrels.

“Squirrels fall out of trees all the time, it’s just in their nature. We’ve seen some fall and spring back up, but some don’t,” Perlut said. “We want to know what the height is where they can’t bounce back. So far we’ve gathered that squirrels can usually survive a fall of about 40 feet high, but we’ve seen cases where they’ve fallen off a building and died, and that was at about 55 feet.”

There are certain basic aspects to the lives of squirrels that are unknown.

According to Perlut, it can be hard to pinpoint an exact lifespan for squirrels as they very rarely live to old age.

“I mean the reality is that squirrels are prey. Squirrels get killed by other animals all the time. In the study, the squirrels have been attacked by foxes and dogs,” Perlut said. “Whenever we see road kill, we study it very carefully to see if it’s one of ours.”

The squirrelologists are also finding information that directly contrasts previously discovered data. For example, it is believed that squirrels only have a home range of between 1 and 3 acres. However, students have tracked squirrels that travel up to 60 acres.

When students track squirrels, they use telemetry. When attuned to the corresponding numbers the collars on the squirrels, the device will cause the telemetry equipment to beep, with the beeps increasing in pitch and frequency until they find the specimen.

They use a data collection app for the phone, which improves on the previous handwritten, clipboard-and-log collection style. The app maps the surrounding area and allows students to chose the corresponding symbol for each squirrel, and enables them to mark the location of the squirrel and any other data they may have collected through the study. This allows students to track the movement of the squirrel and see other notes from students on that squirrel.

“The original plan was to tag the squirrels with different colored ear markers, and have a Facebook page where all students could comment when they had seen a squirrel, where and the color tag, and we could collect data that way. We quickly realized that wasn’t going to work,” Perlut said, laughing. “Squirrels are really small, and man, there’s a lot of them on campus. The way we do it now is way easier.”

The telemetry system is a common way of tracking animals, and is older technology that dates back to the 1960s. It is also more affordable than other ways of tracking. Each tracking collar costs the department $160, where a collar that tracks with GPS can cost $3,000. As there is one tracking machine, students can track either alone or in sets of two, and the flexibility of the scheduling allows for diverse data.

“I wanted to create a program that would teach the students to conduct field study and data collection at a graduate-studies level. This project really puts students in a realistic situation and shows future employers that they have this experience in data collection and observation,” Perlut said. “I’ve had students call me and tell me that they landed research positions based on their participation in this project alone.”

Students keep a blog about their progress at blog.une.edu/squirrel/ and Perlut encourages anyone who sees a tracked squirrel to alert the group so they can add data to the project.

Perlut’s passion for the project is apparent as he speaks to the hope that maybe the students will be the first to find out something new and unknown about squirrels. For a man who has spent his life studying birds, and has published multiple research papers on the subject, he now has a wealth of knowledge on squirrels as well.

And as for the original question: Do we see the same squirrels every day?

“Honestly, probably not. There are so many more squirrels out there than people realize. So, unless you’re seeing a squirrel with a specific trademark, like a unique fur pattern or strange tail, it’s usually a different squirrel every time. They’re very mobile,” Perlut said. “We had one squirrel that had a home base that spread across two streets. You see them running everywhere; we all see so many every day. It’s interesting to see how far they go.”

Staff Writer Abigail Worthing can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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