Friday, October 26, 2012

Bill and Lou the Oxen Need Help!

I usually try to stay on topic with squirrel-related news and information on this blog, but this story caught my eye and I would like to help spread the word.

Green Mountain College is a small liberal arts school in Vermont, with a focus on environmental education. The college runs a farm where students can learn organic, sustainable agricultural practices. Bill and Lou the oxen have worked on this farm for more than ten years. They are loved by the student community, and have become mascots of the school.

Recently Lou sustained an injury to his left rear hock, which has not been able to heal sufficiently to let him work. As a result, the college has decided to replace the oxen team and have both Bill and Lou sent to the slaughterhouse to be "processed" for meat.

That's right. They will be killed.

The saddest thing is, there is an animal sanctuary, the VINE Sanctuary nearby in Vermont, that has offered to take the oxen and allow them to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. But the school officials still think it would make more economic sense to have them put to death. This is hard to understand given the years of service that Bill and Lou have provided, especially for a school that professes values such as sustainability, tolerance, equality, and concern for animal welfare.

Understandably, many are protesting Green Mountain College's callous decision, and hope to change the fate of Bill and Lou. There is a petition on the Care2 website that I hope you will take the time to sign. Hopefully we can save Bill and Lou from becoming dinner, and let these gentle, hard-working animals live out their lives in peace and comfort.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Squirrel Facts: The Alpine Marmot

The Alpine Marmot is a ground squirrel that lives in high grasslands of the Alps and other European mountain ranges. Their range includes parts of Alpine France, Switzerland, and Italy, Austria, southern Germany, and Yugoslavia. It is one of the largest squirrels, measuring about 18-21 inches in length not including the short tail, which is slightly more than an inch long. The coat is thick, reddish-brown or gray.

Like many ground squirrels, the Alpine marmot is highly social, living in colonies of four to around 50 members. The colonies consist of a dominant pair along with their offspring from several years. Typically the male offspring will leave the colony after their first or second winter, as will some of the females, but other females will stay with the group. When the dominant female dies, one of the female offspring will inherit the dominant position.

Members of the colony live in a system of interconnected burrows. They spend the spring and summer months gaining the weight that they will need to survive their long winter hibernation, which lasts more than half of the year. They feed on seeds, grasses, flowers, and bulbs, but will also eat insects and sometimes birds' eggs. In the spring, just after hibernation, an adult Alpine marmot may weigh only around seven pounds, but by the beginning of the next hibernation in the fall its weight will increase to as much as 18 pounds.

Mating takes place immediately after the end of hibernation, and usually three, but sometimes up to seven, young are born in the spring. At the beginning of the winter hibernation, usually in October, the marmots in a colony will retire to their burrow network. Adult Alpine marmots huddle with the young to keep them warm. The last marmot to enter the burrow will plug the entrance with grass, dirt, and feces to keep the cold air and predators out.

Alpine marmots are extremely powerful diggers. Using their fore and hind feet they can penetrate earth that even a pickax would have trouble breaking. Burrows are continually expanded over several generations and can become quite complex, with large "living areas" and other dead end tunnels that are used as "toilets."

Alpine marmots are usually very shy and wary of intruders. One member of the colony will usually stand watching for signs of danger, and if a predator or intruder is seen, will give a series whistles, sending the entire colony running to the burrow for cover.

Remarkably, one human, a young boy named Matteo Walch, seems to have gained the trust of a colony of Alpine marmots in Austria. As reported by the Daily Mail of the UK, this eight year old boy befriended the colony during a family vacation four years ago, and ever since has been welcomed by the marmots during his family's annual two-week summer holidays.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Senator Coburn Scapegoats Robo-Squirrel

Last spring I introduced readers to Robo-Squirrel, a biorobotic squirrel designed and built by researches at the University of California San Diego to study interactions between California ground squirrels and their biggest predator, the rattlesnake. Robo-Squirrel has helped research scientists and students at the university gain valuable insights into how the squirrels ward off attacks by the snakes using tail flagging and thermoregulation, or heating of the tail by adjusting blood flow.


Now Robo-Squirrel is under attack! US Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahomo) is using the robotic squirrel as an example of wasted federal tax money. The project that Robo-Squirrel was a part of was funded with a grand of $325,000 from the National Science Foundation, which is a federally funded agency. Apparently Senator Coburn thinks of any federal money spent on scientific research for anything other than new weapons for the military as being a waste.

Of course, I'm sure that the Senator was aware that the words "robotic squirrel" would get the attention of the press when he was looking for a project to scapegoat. I'm sure that nowhere in his press release did he mention the benefits of what this research has added to our knowledge of predator-prey interactions, of how species evolve adaptations to help them avoid becoming another species' dinner (but of course I'm sure the Senator, being a Republican, doesn't believe in evolution anyway).

And I'm also sure that Senator Coburn didn't mention that most of the grant money didn't go directly to the building of the robotic squirrel, but was instead used to fund the inclusion of both undergraduate and graduate students in the project. But then again, developing future scientists isn't something that the anti-science Republican party would be concerned with.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Squirrel Facts: The Variegated Squirrel

The variegated squirrel is a tree squirrel that makes its home in southern Mexico and Central America, from the Chiapas region in the north to Panama in the south. It can be found in both wet and dry tropical forests, but prefers drier deciduous or mixed forests, scrubland, and even agricultural land.

This is one of the most beautiful, colorful squirrels of the Americas. There are fourteen different subspecies of the variegated squirrels, which display a wide variety of color patterns. The back ranges from black to reddish brown or gray, and the underside from white to cinnamon buff. A fairly large tree squirrel, the head and body length is up to around 13 inches, with the long bushy tail measuring more than 12 inches. The variegated squirrel can weigh up to around two pounds.

Like most tree squirrels, variegated squirrels are diurnal and arboreal, and live alone except for the female when she is raising young. Mating usually takes place in April or May, and the average litter size is 6-8 young, which become independent of the mother at around 15 weeks old.

The primary foods of the variegated squirrel include a variety of nuts and fruits. They especially like soft, juicy fruits. This species also feeds on vegetation including vines, flowers, and mushrooms. In some areas they may eat buds and twigs of bamboo plants.

Photo from

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Some Random Squirrel Trivia For Squirrel Awareness Month

Since we're in the middle of Squirrel Awareness Month, and since I've been having a hard time coming up with new lines for the SAM carol (see my previous posts), I thought I'd offer up some interesting squirrel facts.

There are 278 species of squirrels in the world. They are native to every continent except Australia and Antarctica.

Squirrel species are grouped into three broad categories: ground squirrels (including chipmunks, marmots, and groundhogs); tree squirrels; and flying squirrels.

Gray squirrels have a bite force of around 7,000 pounds per square inch (psi). For comparison, most humans have a bite force around 500 psi.

Like other rodents, squirrels' incisors grow constantly throughout their lives. They must keep them worn down by gnawing to avoid having the teeth become impacted.

Squirrels cannot vomit.

Flying squirrels are able to glide between trees for distances of 150 yards or more. They do so using a flap of skin, called the patagium, that extends on each side of the body between the forearm and leg.

The word "squirrel" comes from two Greek words: skia meaning shade or shadow, and oura meaning tail.

The earliest squirrel known from the fossil record was protosciurus, which lived in North America around 37 million years ago.

Many ground squirrels hibernate during the cold winter months. However, tree squirrels do not hibernate. This is a common misconception.

Most adult tree squirrels, including the eastern gray squirrel, nest alone. However, in cold weather several squirrels will temporarily nest together to share body heat.

Squirrels can control the flow of blood to their tails. This helps the squirrel to regulate its body heat by altering the blood flow. It also helps ground squirrels defend against predators such as snakes that hunt by detecting heat, by allowing the squirrel to make itself look bigger and more threatening.

Squirrels' sweat glands are in the pads of their feet. On a hot day a squirrel may leave tiny wet footprints on a sidewalk.

Squirrels are diurnal, or awake and active during the day. Tree squirrels are most active early in the morning and late in the evening.

Gray squirrels often build more than one nest, or drey, especially when raising young. This way, if one nest is damaged or threatened by a predator, they will have a backup nest to move to.

Squirrels love pumpkins, and are adept at carving jack-o-lanterns.

Phew, that was hard work!

Before burying a nut, a gray squirrel will lick the nut to apply its scent to it. This helps the squirrel locate the nut later.

A gray squirrel weighing about a pound needs to eat its weight in nuts, seeds, and other food every week.

During hibernation, the body temperature of the arctic ground squirrel can drop to below freezing, as low as 27 degrees F. This is the lowest naturally occurring body temperature of any mammal.

Eastern gray squirrels, which are about 15 inches long, can jump up to six feet vertically and eight feet horizontally.

Prairie dogs live in "towns" that may contain dozens of family groups, and can cover hundreds of acres.

Rabies is virtually unknown in squirrels. There is no record of a human ever being infected with rabies through a squirrel bite.

Tree squirrels can rotate their hind feet 180 degrees at the ankles. This helps them to quickly and easily descend tree trunks head first.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Catching Up With Squirrel Awareness Month

After a busy few days, it's time to catch up on our Squirrel Awareness Month carol. So without any further ado,

On the tenth day of Squirrel Awareness Month my squirrel love gave to me
Ten nut butter sandwiches,
Eight fuzzy stuffed squirrels,
Seven smelly snakeskins,
Six comfy dreys,
Five giant sweet peanut patties shaped like Texas,
Four cups of nuts,
Three Baby Ruth bars,
Two ice cream cones,
And an acorn in an oak tree!

Squirrels are known for their love of peanuts. Even though this isn't a food that they would encounter often in the wild, humans have found that a few peanuts (or a few handfuls of peanuts) are always appreciated by their local park squirrels. And as the squirrel in this video will tell you, a jar peanut butter is a treat worth going to some extra effort for!

An Oregon company has been gaining a following lately with some products that any squirrel would love. Wild Squirrel Nut Butter, started by a pair of University of Oregon students, offers a variety of almond and peanut butters with flavorings such as chocolate, cinnamon, and coconut. You can order online or find their nut butters in many stores if you are lucky enough to live in the Pacific Northwest.

I'm hoping that this product will make it into some of the stores here in Texas. In the meantime, maybe my mention here in The News For Squirrels will be rewarded with a free sample (hint hint).

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A Brilliant Disguise: The Seventh Day of Squirrel Awareness Month

On the seventh day of Squirrel Awareness Month my squirrel love gave to me
Seven smelly snakeskins,
Six comfy dreys,
Five giant sweet peanut patties shaped like Texas,
Four cups of nuts,
Three Baby Ruth bars,
Two ice cream cones,
And an acorn in an oak tree!

California ground squirrels have an ingenious trick to fool one of their predators, the rattlesnake. When a ground squirrel comes across a shed snakeskin, it will rub the skin over its fur, coating itself with the snake's scent. This confuses any rattlesnake that threatens the squirrel and its young.

If a rattlesnake wanders into the area of a California ground squirrel colony, the squirrels will not wait for it to attack. They will go on the offensive against the snake, confronting it, kicking dirt at it, and waving their tails. These squirrels are even able to shunt extra blood to the veins in the tail, heating it up. Since the snake detects heat more effectively than it sees, this makes the squirrels appear larger and more threatening to the rattler.

Here is a video that demonstrates how effectively these little ground squirrels deal with a threatening rattlesnake:

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Drey: The Sixth Day of Squirrel Awareness Month

On the sixth day of Squirrel Awareness Month my squirrel love gave to me
Six comfy dreys,
Five giant sweet peanut patties shaped like Texas,
Four cups of nuts,
Three Baby Ruth bars,
Two ice cream cones,
And an acorn in an oak tree!

The drey, the familiar tree squirrel nest made of sticks and leaves, may look like a precariously constructed home. But squirrels are master builders, and the typical drey is not only secure but quite comfortable as well. A gray squirrel in her drey will be dry during rainy weather and well protected from the wind and cold. Here is what it looks like inside a typical drey:

Most squirrels, especially females with young, build multiple dreys within their territories. This way, if one drey is damaged, becomes infested with insects, or is threatened by a nearby predator, there is always at least one backup. A mother squirrel can move an entire litter of young from one drey to another within a few minutes. This is why you will often see more dreys than squirrels in a given area.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Fifth Day of Squirrel Awareness Month

On the fifth day of Squirrel Awareness Month my squirrel love gave to me
Five giant sweet peanut patties shaped like Texas,
Four cups of nuts,
Three Baby Ruth bars,
Two ice cream cones,
And an acorn in an oak tree!

Tree squirrels, especially eastern grays, have been noted for the wide variety of foods that they enthusiastically accept. There is even a whole web site devoted to investigating what they will eat and what (if anything) they will turn up their noses at. Although mostly vegetarian, gray squirrels will happily scarf down many of the foods that humans offer them or simply leave behind, from french fries to pizza to (as noted here a few days ago) ice cream. I'm sure any squirrel would be happy to dig into one of these novelty peanut treats!

New Squirrel Blog

This is Will the White Squirrel.

He likes to travel, and he and his friend Danielle have a new blog where they post lots of original squirrel photos, as well as squirrel news and pop culture trivia. They've been blogging for about a month now, and it is definitely worth a look, so go check it out!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Fox Squirrel Caching Behavior

An interesting article from the UC Berkeley News Center discusses the strategies that fox squirrels use when caching nuts.

A group of students at the University of California, under the direction of psychology graduate student Mikel Delgado, have been tracking 70 campus fox squirrels, mapping their territories, and studying the strategies that the squirrels use to find, hide, and retrieve different kinds of nuts. The students hope to determine how the squirrels determine the quality of each nut, and decide what amount of investment to put into that nut, whether to discard, eat immediately, or to cache the nut.

Like the video in my previous post, this article confirms that tree squirrels rely on much more than just their sense of smell to locate hidden nuts. According to Delgado, the squirrels use a combination of landmarks and spatial memory to narrow down the location to a specific area, while probably relying on smell only for the "final bit of searching."

The article includes a cute video of some of the UC campus fox squirrels hiding nuts:

This looks like some extremely interesting research that promises to shed some light on the intelligence of our squirrely friends!

The Fourth Day of Squirrel Awareness Month

On the fourth day of Squirrel Awareness Month my squirrel love gave to me
Four cups of nuts,
Three Baby Ruth bars,
Two ice cream cones,
and an acorn in an oak tree!

Today's squirrel video demonstrates how tree squirrels use spatial memory to locate hidden nuts. The poster of the YouTube video experimented with three different squirrels, hiding nuts under one of four cups in a squirrely shell game. The squirrels always returned to the cup in the same position where they had previously found the nuts, even when the nuts were moved to a different cup, and even after a different colored cup had been substituted for the original.

The poster of the video makes one error in the description, saying that squirrels do not smell nuts but only locate them based on memory. Squirrels have an excellent sense of smell and most certainly can smell nuts. However, this video may demonstrate that squirrels rely more heavily on spatial memory when searching for recently-cached nuts or for food that they have recently found in a specific location.

I hope that after the experiment was ended, the squirrels were rewarded with all four cups filled with nuts!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Classic Squirrel Video, and the Third Day of Squirrel Awareness Month

On the third day of Squirrel Awareness Month my squirrel love gave to me
Three Baby Ruth bars,
Two ice cream cones,
And an acorn in an oak tree!

This classic video shows a squirrel negotiating an obstacle course that was set up in Great Britain. I believe it may have originally aired as part of a BBC program several years ago. The obstacle course segment is impressive, as the narrator describes how quickly the squirrels figured out the moves needed to reach the treat at the end.

The best part of the clip, for me, is at the end, when a city squirrel climbs into a vending machine, steals a Baby Ruth candy bar, and carries it off to a corner of a parking lot to enjoy the peanutty, caramelly, chocolatty goodness. I suppose it might have enjoyed an Almond Joy bar even more had any been available, because sometimes you feel like a nut!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

On the Second Day of Squirrel Awareness Month...

On the second day of Squirrel Awareness Month my squirrel love gave to me
Two ice cream cones
And an acorn in an oak tree

Yes, squirrels do love ice cream. If you need more proof, here it is...

Monday, October 1, 2012

Squirrel Video: With a Little Help From My Friends

For day one of Squirrel Awareness Month, I want to share one of my favorite squirrel videos. It's about a big squirrel, a young squirrel, and some human friends on the campus of UCLA. Enjoy!