College campuses are nuts about squirrels 

Waynesburg’s campus is home to two things: students and squirrels. This fall semester, Waynesburg University students participated in a national research study to learn more about their college counterpart. 

The national study, conducted by Squirrel-Net, looks into the behavior of squirrels across North American college campuses. The study, which started in 2017, provides undergraduate students an opportunity to participate in scientific inquiry.

“[Squirrel-Net] is a group of mammalogists around the world … who are passionate about undergraduate education,” said Christian Hayes, assistant professor of biology. “And they have all these programs that allow students to learn about squirrels, and then they do research to try to understand squirrel behavior.”

Squirrel-Net is sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Their goal is to gain long-term data about squirrels. Hayes’ ecology class contributed to this goal through their semester-long project.

“Squirrels in particular have a lot of interesting behaviors and squirrels on college campuses tend to get acclimated,” Hayes said. “The squirrels around here tend to behave differently than if you were going to go up to the mountains and hangout with some squirrels.”

According to Hayes, the aim of the project was to understand how squirrels respond and gauge risk. The optimal foraging theory played an important role in the project.

“We wanted to understand how squirrels behave differently,” Hayes said. “You can look at optimal foraging theory where you look at how far a squirrel is willing to go and how much danger they are willing to experience in order to get food.”

The project consisted of 16 trays filled with measured sand and sunflower seeds. Four trays were placed in each of the four parks surrounding the University. Two trays were placed closer to the tree. Two trays were placed farther away from the tree. After a few days, the sand and sunflower seeds were measured and the difference between measurements was calculated. 

“In general, the squirrels tended to eat more from the closer one, but there wasn’t enough data to say that it was significant,” Hayes continued, “that is statistically to say that.”

Even though the results did not provide significant evidence of squirrel behavior, the project was more than just collecting data about squirrel behavior. The project provided an opportunity for students to learn about ecological science.

“We used new technology that I don’t think we’ve used before at Waynesburg. So it was really interesting and it was the stuff they use in the field for biology currently. So it was a good learning experience,” said Breanne Hunter,  junior biology major.

In addition to training students in ecological science, the project also benefited Squirrel-Net. After the completion of the experiment, Waynesburg’s data was added to the organization’s growing database. 

“The students get valuable experience doing the research, and then the data actually goes to a group that can use it to better understand squirrel behaviors changing across the United States’ college campuses and other areas,” Hayes said.

Additionally, Hunter said, it was a fun opportunity to work with the notorious squirrels of Waynesburg.

“It was fun working with the squirrels because they’re the things you see around campus every single day,” Hunter said. “You know that they’re good enough with people that you could just hold out a french fry, and they’ll come and take it. So seeing them in a more scientific standpoint was really interesting.”

Hunter and Hayes both said they are hoping to expand upon this experiment in the future. 

“We could definitely expand onto that,” Hunter said. “That’s the funny thing about science. Once you finish one experiment, you have 13 more to branch off from.”