Squirreled out /skwir(ə)ld au̇t/

Adjective.

A state of tiredness due to a recent and lengthy immersion in squirrel-related activities: Boy am I squirreled out after living in a tree and burying acorns the whole weekend!

Verb.

The act of escaping from a tricky situation through tenacity, the element of surprise and animal cunning. Commonly used in baseball: “Jeez, the Blue Jays squirrelled out of that one didn’t they Ernie?” – “Yes they sure did, squirreled out of it like a fox” - “…….”

We are all squirreled out. From the 3rd to 5th February, the McAdam lab at the University of Guelph hosted fellow Kluane Red Squirrel Project (KRSP) researchers from the Universities of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Michigan (plus a McGill delegation via video call) for the annual KRSP workshop. The Kluane Red Squirrel Project is a long-term research initiative (going on 30 years of data collection!) that uses red squirrels a model system to study questions about ecology, evolution and energetics. With talks starting at 8:30AM, running until 6PM, and socialising continuing into the night, it was a fairly intense experience. But a fantastic one at that. There aren’t many long-term research projects that are jointly run by multiple universities in different countries like this, so the opportunity to meet new and old members, exchange ideas and lay out plans for the future is invaluable.

It began on Thursday, with Michigan people rumbling up from the south in the faithful truck “Growler”, and Alberta and Saskatchewan people flying over in an equally faithful Boeing 737. Greetings, hugs and introductions were exchanged over a pub dinner, before we placed people either in hotels or on sofas and prepared for the next day.

We started with a round-table discussion of stress in the red squirrels, led by Dr. Ben Dantzer (Michigan) and Dr. Amy Newman (Guelph), and look at some of Dr. Freya van Kesteren’s research findings on activation of the stress axis. This rolled into a discussion on maternal behaviour. Over lunch Dr. Andrew McAdam (Guelph) ran through how the long term database was to be accessible from an online server, with reproducible analysis code the focus to allow everyone to recreate each other’s analysis from complete scratch – an important development. The rest of the afternoon was devoted to discussing the research findings of Drs. Jess Haines and Anni Hämäläinen (both Alberta). Jess has just finished her PhD, so has multiple works lined up based on her PhD thesis on how resources and reproductive trade-offs affect fitness, life history traits, and sexual selection in the squirrels. Anni focused on her work on how the peak of an individual’s reproductive effort represents a key life-history trait, and how peaking during a mast year really was key for a female squirrel. After all that, we hit the Baker Street Station pub for dinner and a good time.

Saturday was set up to allow each research group to present their recent findings and plans for the future. First up, the Alberta group, with Prof. Stan Boutin, giving KRSP a report card-style assessment in a range of different areas, giving us all plenty of ideas to think on. Anni and new PhD candidate April Martinig then outlined their plans for investigations into the inter-relationships between life-history, personality, dispersal and survivorship. Next we had the Dantzer group (Michigan), with Ben leading it with his plans for investigating how maternal stress relates to squirrel life histories. Current PhD candidate Sarah Westrick then presented how stress levels of mothers relate to the activity and aggression of their pups, while Freya described the pitfalls and success stories involved in manipulating the stress levels in wild squirrels. After lunch, Dr. Jeff Lane (Saskatchewan) outlined his plans within a “Evo-Eco-Energetics” framework, including exciting plans to non-invasively assess the body composition of individuals. PhD candidate Andrea Wishart then hit us with a double whammy, updating us all on her investigation into how the sex ratio varies (or fails to) in litters, before outlining her plans for understanding the variation in resource acquisitions among squirrels. Finishing up the day was Andrew, outlining how his research group is investigating different components of the role of the social environment in evolution. Said research group then presented: PhD candidate Erin Siracusa showing us how squirrels individually respond to the characteristics of their social neighbourhood, while MSc candidates Jack Robertson and Maggie Bain, and post-doc Dr. David Fisher outlined their plans to look at how familiarity modulates intra-specific aggression, how individual specific vocalizations depend on the acoustic properties of an individual’s neighbours, and whether squirrels supress each other’s resource dependent traits through competition respectively. This is a really key part of the whole workshop: researchers looking for feedback to ensure their plans for experiments are realistic and that they are tackling interesting topics.

 Andrew McAdam giving a brief introduction to the McAdam lab's research plans.

Andrew McAdam giving a brief introduction to the McAdam lab's research plans.

After a bit of down-time we were hosted by Andrew and his family for another lovely evening, and Matt Sehrsweeney (Michigan) definitely did not have to sleep on a friend’s sofa after his host fell asleep. Not a word of it.

Sunday was a lot more free-form, with wide ranging discussions on the on-going food addition experiment, plans for any new experiments, plans for an upcoming mast year, and thoughts on how we could be more efficient as a group. Such long-range planning is key to ensure the KRSP remains ready to deal with unforeseen eventualities and remains at the forefront of the fields of ecology and evolution.

That is the true purpose of the annual meeting, but it also serves other purposes. For one, it’s great to hear first-hand what everyone is working on, and get a sneak-preview at some exciting results. It is also really important to meet up and socialise with people who you may have spent months in the field with, or who work on similar topics to you, as it encourages a sense of togetherness which is vital for making research a stimulating and enjoyable field to work in. It looks like the next edition, KRSP Workshop 2018, will be held in Saskatoon. Let’s hope we all survive the next field season and come fresh-faced and ready for more squirrelly discussion the next time around!

- David Fisher

 Everyone for a family photo after a long weekend of KRSP talk!

Everyone for a family photo after a long weekend of KRSP talk!