A fox squirrel reaches for food to eat on a tree in Salt Lake City on March 28, 2020. The species was first discovered in Utah 10 years ago and is the focus of an ongoing study by researchers at the Natural History Museum of Utah. (Carter Williams, KSL.com)
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SALT LAKE CITY — Zoologists and wildlife biologists have, for over a century, turned to the public’s help in collecting data for all sorts of species, especially birds, butterflies and plants.
The Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count is a great example of this. Everyday folks from all over the country gather to count the birds they see, which goes into the understanding of bird populations. But squirrels?
Yes, researchers at the Natural History Museum of Utah are calling on Utahns to help them track squirrels — fox squirrels, more specifically — as they try to understand the species’ location and habits in Utah. With two events in Salt Lake City beginning Saturday and “Squirrel Fest” set to begin next week, researchers hope that residents can help them with a study currently underway by simply snagging a photo and reporting the location of where they found a squirrel.
Ellen Eiriksson, the citizen science program manager for the Natural History Museum of Utah, says it shouldn’t be too difficult because, well, the species now seems to be everywhere.
“People are seeing squirrels at the time from their own homes, looking out of their windows, on the way to work (or) outside on a walk with a dog,” she said. “(They can help by) being able to take a couple of minutes to observe the squirrels that you’re seeing and maybe the behavior, what they’re doing.”
Squirrel Fest, first launched last year, acts much the same as the Christmas Bird Count in that it’s a mass citizen-scientist program. Utahns, especially along the Wasatch Front, who come across a fox squirrel are encouraged to take photos and report sightings either through the interactive citizen scientist website iNaturalist or by filling out a form on the museum’s website.
The first 150 people to fill out a form through the museum website will win a squirrel-themed bandana from the museum. Researchers are also hosting an event from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Liberty Park on Saturday, where people can gather data and learn about fox squirrels together. There’s another event scheduled for Dec. 11 at the International Peace Gardens, also from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
So why is the museum interested in fox squirrels? This year marks a decade since the species was first reported in Utah when one of the squirrels was spotted along the banks of the Jordan River in Salt Lake City. It’s not a native species like the rock and the American red squirrel species.
“Fox squirrels (are) not native but they are a part of the ecosystem now and they’re a part of the ecosystem now, and they’re here likely for the long term,” Eiriksson said. “So we’re going to have to learn how to live with them.”
Eric Rickart, the museum’s curator of vertebrates, first began to look into the newest squirrel species about five years ago. Eiriksson explains that the museum study seeks to figure out exactly how far the species has traveled in the state since 2011 and how it interacts with people and the ecosystem.
It may seem pretty simple or common to certain people, squirrels can be pretty common to see in certain parts of the city, but being able to take a minute to report it to us is really valuable and so helpful.
–Ellen Eiriksson, citizen science program manager for the Natural History Museum of Utah
Researchers gathered some data from iNaturalist but the inaugural Squirrel Fest last year helped researchers get over 400 observations. There are now over 1,000 fox squirrel observations in Utah posted to iNaturalist, nearly all in Salt Lake County and a few other sightings also in the Wasatch Front.
“In the past five years, fox squirrels have rapidly expanded their range along the Wasatch Front and are adapting to the urban environment,” Rickart said, in a statement Tuesday.
But that may not be the full picture. Eiriksson points out that researchers don’t have many submissions outside of Salt Lake County. They aren’t sure if that’s because the species is prevalent outside of the county or if people outside of the county just don’t use resources like iNaturalist to post about it.
The form the museum created includes an option where people can also report they looked for a squirrel but couldn’t find one to limit a location bias related to people who just aren’t reporting squirrels.
“That’s also very interesting data when you’re thinking about trying to understand the distribution of the species,” she said. “If they’re not living in a place, that’s helpful to know too.”
They’ve started to receive some information about their behavior in their new habitat, too. Many have reported squirrels sneaking in their attics and other spaces — that’s either viewed as adorable or an annoyance depending on the person, Eiriksson said.
Still, there’s plenty of information they’d like to collect. Using citizen science allows researchers to crowdsource this sort of data that would otherwise take them several years to collect, which is why Eiriksson says the museum is grateful for every report they receive. She calls every sighting “another piece of a puzzle” that the research team is putting together.
Once complete, the study may just offer everything needed to know about fox squirrels in Utah.
“This fox squirrel study we’re working on now really wouldn’t be possible without people looking out their windows, truly, or telling us on a walk they saw a squirrel or didn’t see a squirrel,” Eiriksson said. “It may seem pretty simple or common to certain people, squirrels can be pretty common to see in certain parts of the city, but being able to take a minute to report it to us is really valuable and so helpful.”