Research into Squirrels Takes Flight on Campus

Instruction/Liaison Librarian C.J. Wong led a team of three students and two assistant professors in the installation of nesting boxes for flying squirrels in the woods behind parking lot K this summer, to learn whether there are any of the nocturnal animals in the area.

Using a SCURCA grant to fund its research, the team, including assistant professor of civil engineering Cynthia Carlson and assistant professor of biology Azam Noori, who is a Zampell Family Faculty Fellow; and student biology majors Julianna DeSantis, Gabrielle Kazz and Jacx Canistraro, hung about 20 nesting boxes.

“They are like a bluebird box but the hole is on the side so a squirrel will go in it,” Wong said. “If it’s a bluebird box you put the whole on the front.”

There isn’t a lot known about flying squirrels in Massachusetts, Wong said. It isn’t even clear if there are either southern flying squirrels or northern flying squirrels in the state so Wong plans to  go back in the future and learn whether any flying squirrels moved into the nesting boxes.

She wrote a thesis for her graduate degree in biological sciences at Eastern Illinois University in the late 1990s on the effects of habitat fragmentation on southern flying squirrels. She wants students to have a chance to learn about the squirrels. If they are in the area.

“We want to involve students in being able to see these magnificent creatures and you won’t see them because they are nocturnal — if you don’t put up the boxes,” Wong said. “I’m hoping it works out; I’m hoping we get some squirrels.”

Wong ultimately hopes to create a network of flying squirrel researchers throughout New England.

As part of its research, the team surveyed the vegetation in the area around the nesting boxes and used electronic equipment in a fruitless search for bats. The student researchers identified and documented 50 plant species on campus. The campus assessment was used to prepare a lesson plan on plant identification skills that can be used by middle school STEM teachers, Wong said. 

The vegetation survey was tedious work but the project a good experience, DeSantis said.

“It was definitely exciting but I feel I’m being kept on the edge with anticipation because we didn’t get anything; but I’m excited for the future to see if we get anything out of it,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis, Kazz and Canistraro will share the results of their experiences during the school-wide poster presentation in the fall.

The Anthony J. Sakowich Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (SCURCA) program provides paid opportunities for faculty to work with undergraduate students who gain on-campus research experience outside a classroom setting. There are a number of funding methods for SCURCA, including the Provost Innovation Fund.