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Project Squirrel: UNE students studying squirrels find unexpected data

Project Squirrel helps track and analyze data of gray squirrels in the Biddeford area

BIDDEFORD, Maine — Students at the University of New England are making profound discoveries about one of Maine's common and mundane animals.

"When you think about any given day, if you're going to encounter one wild mammal, the likelihood is that animal's going to be a gray squirrel," Noah Perlut, a professor in the school of marine and environmental programs, said. 

While the gray squirrel may be common, Perlut said there is very limited research about the creatures. But he and several UNE students who are involved in Project Squirrel are working to change that.

"I wanted to start of project where students could walk out of these buildings and use techniques in the field where they could learn them quickly, and they're the same type of techniques that a professional wildlife biologist or graduate student would be using," Perlut said. 


Students enrolled in the one-credit course at UNE are helping trap the squirrels, analyzing their physical features, equipping them with ear tags and radio collars, before releasing them back where they found them and track the data for as long as they live. 

"I don't know how many other people besides the ones here can say that they've pierced a squirrel's ear. [I've] given them a little earing," Nick Carrier, an oceanography student at UNE, said while laughing.

Students have been analyzing everything from the size of the squirrels to the various habitats they live in. 

"Tracking can be a big thing used in ocean research as well, and since I want to study the marine organisms of our sea, I thought the telemetry tracking experience would be quite useful" marine biology student Bryan Connolly said. 

Project Squirrel started about 12 years ago. Since then, Perlut said students have helped track about 150 different squirrels and have collected about 20,000 unique data points. 

"They can move quite a fair bit of distance that would not normally be expected of a small mammal," marine biology student Bryan Connolly said.

Those data points have shown that gray squirrels travel much further than originally believed.

"The literature suggests that they would use 1 or 2 acres at most, males a little more than females. We've had gray squirrels with home ranges up to 70 acres. And the average is probably 10 times bigger than what's been published in the past. So that to me has been absolutely amazing," Perlut said.

New students take part in Project Squirrel each year. You can track all of the information collected on the project's website.

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