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Students collar squirrels for senior capstone course

Collared squirrels around campus are being used to collect data for a senior capstone class, providing hands-on experience related to the field by capturing and monitoring animals.

The class is called Wildlife Data Collection and Analysis and is designed to give an overview of practices used in the field, along with modern day techniques used to analyze data, according to postdoctoral fellow and instructor Kristin Broms.

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There is a relatively large population of squirrels around campus. (Photo by: Caio Pereira).
There are several squirrels that can be seen around the Colorado State University campus. (Photo credit: Caio Pereira)

“Really, the purpose is to give students the chance to see all the techniques that are used, both actually in the field collecting the data and then analyzing the data,” Broms said.

The course allows students to learn and utilize analysis techniques such as distance sampling, capture/recapture, survival analysis and occupancy models. One key part of the class is data collection. Students do this is by capturing and using radio telemetry collars on squirrels. The collars sends out radio signals to a receiver, which is then used to hone in on the frequency from the collar, according to Broms.

Squirrels are used because they are active during the day and feasible to obtain, according to wildlife ecology professor Barry Noon.

Noon started teaching the course 18 years ago, when he was asked to reflect the contemporary methods and state of the wildlife ecology field.

”I really enjoy teaching the capstone course because it is very much of a synthesis and it gives me the chance to sort of feel like I’m giving my students a set of tools that is going to make their resume come up near the top of the pile in what is a very competitive job market,” Noon said.

Senior fish and wildlife conservation major Eveline Goncalves said she enjoys the class because of the hands-on experience.

“You’re actually out in the field and you’re able to capture animals and do mark recapture,” Goncalves said. “A lot of classes will just tell you, ‘Oh, this is what you would do in the field,’ and with this class, we are actually able to do it. So, that’s a really cool part.”

In the class, students get the opportunity to the capture squirrels themselves.

“We came by here on a Saturday and we got to actually go out and try to capture the (squirrels),” Gonclaves said. “So, we were given like apples and peanut butter and we were given the cages.”

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Noon said the squirrels are not necessarily behaving as they would in the wild because they have become more domesticated through people feeding them.

“That changes their behavior, it changes their spatial distribution patterns,” Noon said.

Because squirrels can get naturally aggressive over resources, feeding them changes their behavior.

“There’s no need to feed them,” Noon said. “They’re perfectly capable of obtaining food naturally from the environment.”

Students also use electroshock in rivers to estimate the abundance of crayfish. This is done by capturing them through electroshock, marking them on their exoskeleton and then coming back and estimating their population.

The capstone class is important because data analysis and the techniques used relate to the field of wildlife ecology, according to Noon.

“The fate of nature is a fate that we share,” Noon said. “Human welfare and the natural world are inseparable objectives. Because nature doesn’t have its own voice, someone has to speak for nature. I think a number of us working in wildlife ecology (and) fishery ecology feel that we are a voice for nature.”

Collegian Natural Sciences Reporter Seth Bodine can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @sbodine120.

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