Weridly, Red Squirrels Actually Do Better When Sharing Their Forests With A Native Predator

Red squirrels have been outcompeted by gray squirrels introduced from America. seawhisper/Shutterstock

Josh Davis 07 Mar 2018, 15:57

Using these hair samples, the scientists were not only able to determine exactly which species were living in the area and visiting the feeders, but also by using genetics they could identify individual animals and track where their core territories were.

This provided the first unequivocal evidence that as the number of pine martens increase, the number of gray squirrels is suppressed, giving a boost to red squirrel populations. So it seems even among woodland creatures: your enemy’s enemy is your friend.

Why the pine martens seem to be preferentially picking off the grays is not fully understood, but could be down to a number of factors.

The invasive gray squirrels are not as good at escaping the native pine marten. chris froome/Shutterstock

One that has been floated before is that it might be to do with the size difference between the red and gray squirrels. On average reds are slightly smaller than grays, which means that when arboreal martens hunt them through the branches the red squirrels are able to climb out onto the thinner twigs that won’t support the weight of the marten. The heavier grays, however, have no such luck and so are more likely to make marten lunch.

The data from this study suggests another possible reason. Curiously, in regions where the pine marten numbers were found to be increasing, while the number of red squirrels visiting feeders decreased, no such change happened with the grays. The researchers suspect that as a non-native invader, the grays might be naive to the native predator, as no such analog exists in North America.  

The finding, which backs up an earlier study looking into this effect in Ireland, adds yet more weight to the argument that we should be rewilding our countryside, reintroducing the species that we drive to extinction hundreds of years ago to restore the balance, and make the environment not only better for nature, but better for ourselves too.

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