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Nuts For Red Squirrels

Nuts For Red Squirrels

Researchers find a communal haven in Kluane.
By Katharine Sandiford
Jul 23
2019
From the JULY/AUGUST 2019 Issue

Scores of academics and scientists descend on the territories each year to poke, probe, and proselytise. It’s not all the stuff of dry dissertations. Some of it is weird. All of it is wonderful. This issue, Up Here is documenting some of the wildest research happening in the North. 

At first glance, you might think Squirrel Camp is a hippy commune. Tins of beans are stacked from floor-to-ceiling in the cook shack where huge “family meals” are prepared over a pot-bellied wood-stove. Rainbow-coloured bohemian bunkhouses are scattered about. Campfire smoke and the dulcet tones of strummed guitars waft through the poplar and spruce groves.

But if you were to meet one of the grubby inhabitants, eyes twinkling with fervour, they’d be sure to correct you. This is the home of the Kluane Red Squirrel Project, a 30-year-old interdisciplinary field study on the biology of red squirrels living near the Saint Elias Mountains. The place is teeming with researchers from five universities: Alberta, Guelph, McGill, Michigan, and Saskatchewan.

“It’s a completely collaborative game. We work as a team to decide on all of the work that gets done on the red squirrels,” says Stan Boutin, a professor from University of Alberta who founded the project in 1987 and hand-built the camp 35 kilometres from Haines Junction. “I’m completely biased but I think it’s one of the best field ecologist positions going.”

A few years away from retiring, Boutin is known as the grandfather of the project. “You could say I planted the nut,” he says, chuckling. All of the other principal investigators are his former graduate students. Younger researchers and field technicians are students of his students.

“It’s a number of generations of people,” says Boutin. “We have records on these squirrels that go way back. We know who’s related to whom and how they all interact with each other.”

Erin Siracusa weighs a red squirrel in a handling bag. COURTESY ERIN SIRACUSA

This year, Kluane is at full-capacity, with over 18 people living at the camp between March and September. The researchers are predicting a “mast year,” where white spruce trees produce a heavy cone crop. In anticipation of this food spike, the squirrels start “breeding like crazy,” requiring maximum staffing at camp to keep track of all the action.

Red squirrels are fiercely competitive and spend their lives defending and defining their territories. Erin Siracusa, a recent PhD and this year’s camp project coordinator, will tell you the squirrels aren’t asocial, though.

Some mothers are so selfless, they will give almost anything to ensure the success of their pups—including their entire territory and food cache. Siracusa’s research proved squirrels who live in close proximity to one another, despite their bouts of fighting and aggression, actually live longer, healthier lives than squirrels living in isolation.

“There are some cool human parallels here,” says Siracusa. “We need each other even if we don’t like each other.”

Not quite the case at squirrel camp where everyone seems to get along.

“The people here are like a family,” she says. “You spend a season or two at Squirrel Camp and it kind of steals a little piece of your heart and it never lets go.”