What we don’t know is going on in the branches above us.
Our necks crane as we stare into the branches of an oak beside Condon Hall on the University of Oregon campus. Our hands clutch notebooks and GPS units. Measuring tapes hang from our pockets. We scan the tree this afternoon, hastily looking for the flash of fur, the flick of a tail.
This day’s cohort is part of an anthropology class, Primates in Ecological Communities. Using squirrels as subjects, the course teaches data collection methods in the field. Squirrels — as everyone at the University of Oregon knows — are pervasive on the verdant campus.
Yet what most don’t know is the fuzzy, red squirrel we see most often is, in fact, an invasive species.
These are the eastern fox squirrels, which were introduced in the 1920s to Oregon as pets and “watchable wildlife,” according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Eastern fox squirrels are among the largest tree-dwelling squirrels in North America and are native to the eastern United States and Canada.
The other variety you may see around Eugene is likely to be the western gray squirrel, otherwise known as the Oregon gray squirrel. The northwest native was listed as an endangered species in Washington in 1993, and has since been categorized as vulnerable in Oregon. This native squirrel is being threatened by habitat loss, urbanization, forest fires, and disease. It is also in direct competition with the eastern fox squirrel, forced to duke it out for food and territory.
On our squirrel search, calls of “Crap, where did it go?” and “How high up is the damn thing?” can be heard from anthropology students across the quad, as well as “How am I supposed to know the squirrel’s gender?” Perhaps these are questions best left to the professionals, but something in our collected data stands out. The species category is unquestionably dominated by the eastern fox squirrel.
Since its introduction, the fox squirrel has flourished in the Willamette Valley, out-eating andout-breeding the native gray squirrel.
This squirrel Thunderdome has larger impacts on the ecosystem than the endangerment of a single species. “All native species have complex interactions with their environment, so removing a single species can cause unknown but possibly meaningful ecological effects” says Peg Boulay, a wildlife ecologist and co-director of the Environment Leadership Program at the University of Oregon. “In the case of Western gray squirrels, they disperse acorns and other seeds, so are important in the ecology of Oregon white oak (tree) habitats. Western gray squirrels are also preyed upon by predators such as hawks, owls, and bobcats.”
Whether you see squirrels as cute and cuddly, or as squeaky, sneaky little thieves, they are an important cog in our environment. Boulay suggests students can make a difference to the survival of this and other species by learning about, caring and advocating for wildlife conservation. “The primary threat to (the) western gray squirrel in the Willamette Valley is habitat loss. So students can make a long-term difference by advocating for habitat preservation. Students can also explore volunteer work or careers in land use planning, sustainable urban development and conservation to help squirrels and other wildlife.”
While fox squirrels haven’t won the war yet, it is important to take care of the native gray squirrels and other vulnerable species. That can simply mean keeping your dog on a leash in the park and remember, “Do Not Feed The Squirrels.”