It’s hard to miss the multitude of squirrels that reside at The College of Wooster as they dart across the walkways or vault from limb to limb, but several scientists are taking a particularly close look at their daily activities.
Jacob Beckstead, a senior biology major from Saxonburg, Pa., is conducting the surveillance operation under the watchful eye of Rick Lehtinen, associate professor of biology at Wooster and Beckstead’s adviser for Independent Study, Wooster’s nationally acclaimed senior research experience.
The idea originated several years ago when Lehtinen started observing the squirrels — first casually and then closely — as he walked to and from campus each day. “[Dr. Lehtinen] wanted a student who could really take time to study the behavior of the squirrels, particularly the differences between the black and gray ones,” says Beckstead. “This sounded very interesting to me, so we talked, and decided to work together.”
Beckstead is now immersed in his research, which focuses on the genetic basis for the differences in coat color and how those differences might be related to behavior. “Jake is spending part of his time walking a consistent path across campus each day, looking for squirrels and observing what they are doing at various times of the day,” says Lehtinen. “He has also constructed three nest boxes — two for the academic quad and one for the oak grove — each equipped with an infrared camera. Live video from these cameras will eventually be streamed on Wooster’s website so that everyone can observe how squirrels spend their time in the trees high above campus.”
So while most students gaze upon the squirrels with passing amusement and occasional annoyance, Beckstead watches with considerable curiosity, taking note of the various foods they eat, registering in what regions of the campus they reside, and trying to get an accurate estimate of their total population. He is also looking at aggression and mating behavior, which might help to answer why these little critters always seem to be chasing one another.
Much of the foundational research for Beckstead’s project has been done by Helen McRobie in the United Kingdom. His ultimate goal is to further map the genetic history of squirrels and learn more about melanism — a condition where the body produces too much melanin, which results in dark fur and skin. “Will we find the same mutations discovered by McRobie, or will we find that melanism arose separately after the squirrels' introduction to the UK?"
When Beckstead completes his research and turns in his Independent Study project, he will shift his sights to the pursuit of an advanced degree in graduate school. “I am looking to continue researching while moving into teaching developmental biology either at the high school or college level,” he says. As for his time at Wooster, Beckstead describes the entire experience as “phenomenal,” and is confident that he is well prepared for the future, wherever it might take him.
In the meantime, because he is not permitted to collect live samples, Beckstead is reaching out to the community for donations of deceased squirrels. “We could use some road kill,” he says bluntly. “We would also accept samples from those who hunt squirrels in season and wouldn't mind parting with their tails. If anyone comes across anything like this, they can contact me.” The results of Beckstead’s study will be published when he turns in his I.S. next spring.