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Ecology class is tracking squirrels on campus

ISSUED: 21 September 2016
MEDIA CONTACT: Valerie Owens

SHEPHERDSTOWN, WV — Three squirrels on Shepherd University’s campus have been accessorized with tiny radio collars so students in the general ecology classes can spend the semester studying them. Dr. Mark Lesser, assistant professor of biology, worked with Josh Vance from the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources to trap the squirrels and put the collars on them. Students from the class are now using lab hours to track the squirrels and document their activities.

Brooke Comer and Ella Bushman, both biology majors from Martinsburg, spent about an hour one recent morning walking around with Lesser tracking one of the squirrels. Bushman carried an antenna attached to a receiver while Comer carried a GPS device and documented the coordinates. They started out at Stutzman-Slonaker Hall and ended up locating the squirrel in the woods behind Ikenberry Hall.

“We’re going to be tracking squirrels for most of the semester as a class, mapping out where they go, and what they’re eating or doing whenever we are observing them,” Bushman said.

“It should be interesting to see where exactly they travel and how far they go, and to map out where they are on campus,” Comer said. “No one really knows, but we’re about to find out.”

Lesser is having his four general ecology classes with a total of 99 students track the squirrels, which have been given the names Harambe, Forrest, and Clyde. Lesser said he chose squirrels as study subjects because they’re fairly easy to trap, they are abundant on campus, and students are able to spend about an hour between classes seeing where the squirrels go and what they do.

“When you track them and see where they are, you observe what’s around them and get a sense of why they are going there,” Comer said.

“We’ll probably see what they can do in their natural environment and also the environment that Shepherd provides them as far as trash cans and stuff that students leave behind that I’m sure they take advantage of,” Bushman added.

Bushman and Comer say they are enjoying the class and learning a lot from it. Bushman, who plans to go to medical school, said she always likes classes with hands-on projects because she feels she gets more out of them. For Comer, the class is giving her experience in ecology, which is the field she plans to go into.

“It adds experience under your belt,” Comer said. “You get to try using new equipment and do new data analysis.”

At the end of the semester the students will enter the data they collect into a geographic information system and analyze the statistics they’ve collected. They’ll learn about things like the squirrels’ range size, habitat uses, and behavior. Lesser said the squirrels are helping give his students an experience that translates into the real world.

“The techniques and what we’re doing in terms of the analysis as well are exactly the same as if we were tracking jaguars in South America or elephants in Africa,” Lesser said.

Listen to the interview HERE.

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