Conservation Research Laboratory: General Conservation Projects
Andrew J. Edelman
The ecology of an introduced population of Abert’s squirrels in a mixed-conifer forest.
Time Period: 2001 - 2004
Location: Pinaleño (Graham) Mountains, Graham County, southeastern Arizona (Coronado National Forest).
Major Questions/Objectives: Abert’s squirrels (Sciurus aberti) are reported to depend on ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) for food and nest sites. Introduced Abert’s squirrels in the Pinaleño Mountains of Arizona, however, occupy mixed-conifer forests that contain almost no ponderosa pine (about 2%). We examined Abert’s squirrel nest site selection, diet, and home range in this novel habitat.
In addition, we examined the potential for interspecific competition for nest sites and food resources between co-occurring native Mt. Graham red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus grahamensis) and non-native Abert’s squirrels in the Pinaleño Mountains.
Major Findings: Abert’s squirrel dreys (i.e., spherical nests) were built adjacent to the trunk at 75% of the tree height. Dreys were found in 5 different conifer species and 2% were in ponderosa pine. Drey trees were larger and had more access routes than did random trees. The structural characteristics of drey trees in the Pinaleños population also were very similar to drey trees used by natural populations of Abert’s squirrels in ponderosa pine forests. Structural features such as tree size and access routes appear to be more important to selection of drey sites than tree species.
Through observations of marked animals, we found that individuals in the mixed-conifer forest ate similar food items as Abert’s squirrels in ponderosa pine forests, including seeds, inner bark, buds, and fungi, but 5 conifer species were used as food sources. Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and southwestern white pine (Pinus strobiformis) were the most frequently eaten conifer species. Nests of Abert’s squirrels also were detected in all tree species. Our results for nest site selection and food suggest that the dependence of Abert’s squirrels on ponderosa pine is not as strong as previously reported.
Abert’s squirrel home-range size, home-range overlap with females, and movement distances increased for males from nonmating to mating seasons. Home-range size and overlap characteristics of females remained consistent between seasons, but movement distances were reduced during the mating season. Non-mating season home ranges in our study were smaller than home ranges observed in ponderosa pine forest. Abert’s squirrels in mixed-conifer forest may have small home ranges because resource quality is higher than in ponderosa pine forest or due to competition for space with co-occurring Mount Graham red squirrels.
Comparison of nest use between Mt. Graham red squirrels and Abert’s squirrels at different scales (nest, nest tree, and nest site) revealed contrasting results. Competition for nests and nest trees appears unlikely given the dissimilarity in use of nest types and tree characteristics. Abert’s squirrels predominately used dreys, whereas red squirrels mostly used cavity nests. Neither squirrel species occupied a nest used by the other species. Abert’s squirrel nest sites were found in a wider range of microhabitats including almost all microhabitats in which red squirrel nest sites were located. Although there was significant overlap, each species showed distinct trends in microhabitat. In general, red squirrel nest sites were characterized as more densely forested areas dominated by corkbark fir (Abies lasiocarpa var. arizonica), whereas Abert’s squirrel nest sites were more open and contained greater tree species diversity. Overlap in microhabitat characteristics increases the likelihood of interspecific competition and could increase the vulnerability of red squirrels to extinction.
We also used remote photography to assess the frequency of inter- and intra-specific kleptoparasitism and species richness at Mt. Graham red squirrel middens. Remote cameras and conifer cones were placed at occupied and unoccupied middens, and random sites. Species richness of small mammals was higher at red squirrel middens than random sites. Abert’s squirrels, potential kleptoparasites, were recorded only at unoccupied middens and random sites. Non-resident red squirrels were most common at unoccupied middens and rare at occupied middens and random sites. Inter- and intra-specific kleptoparasitism of red squirrel middens appears uncommon likely due to territorial behavior.