If you walked around Como Park in St. Paul over the summer, you might have noticed some rather unusual yard signs featuring a squirrel eyeing onlookers with a note that research is underway. The signs are a sort of invitation to curious passersby.
Charlotte Devitz, a Ph.D. student in Associate Professor Emilie Snell- Rood’s lab, leads the Squirrel Squad research team. To help facilitate conversations, she set up signs and created “honorary member” stickers.
“When people see traps and our equipment, they often stare and I found that having a sign up gave them ‘permission’ to approach us and ask questions,” says Devitz. “It’s a natural way to engage with the folks and tell them about what we are doing.”
Devitz and her research team lay out traps and then run tests on the squirrels and chipmunks to test whether they’re more likely to be bold or shy. By repeating these tests with animals in urban, suburban and rural environments, they can better understand drivers of behavioral changes.
Squirrels and chipmunks might initially seem out of place in the Snell-Rood lab, which has earned the nickname “the butterfly lab” around campus, but key questions overlap across the systems. Researchers in the lab focus on how organisms adapt to radical changes in their environments.
Squirrels and chipmunks thrive in urban environments, despite the novel challenges. Anyone who has picnicked in an urban park can attest to that. For Devitz, that’s part of why they are great species to use to tackle these questions.
“By studying the behavior of well-adapted species, we can better monitor and predict the impacts of urbanization on other species in the future,” says Devitz.
This question of adaptation fits nicely into the new Minneapolis–St. Paul Metropolitan Area (MSP) Long– Term Ecological Research Program, which formally kicked off earlier this year. For Devitz, this new program was a huge draw to pursue her Ph.D. in CBS.
Hear more from Devitz, who was recently featured on NPR Short Wave —a popular science podcast—at z.umn.edu/npr-short-wave-Devitz.
About the article | This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 edition of BIO, a magazine for College of Biological Sciences alumni, donors and friends.