Animals & Wildlife Magazine

Unlikely BFFs!

By Frontiergap @FrontierGap

The Eursian Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is species of tree squirrel native to Northern European and Asian countries. This animal was especially prominent in Great Britain, being of notable importance to humans as a source of fur. However, the peculiar Victorian fashion of introducing non-native species in the 19th Century has resulted in devastating results for this species.

Unlikely BFFs!

Image courtesy of Billy Lindblom

The red squirrel is a typical arboreal mammal found in British forests across Great Britain and Ireland. However, in 1876 a pair of Eastern Grey Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) were deliberately released in Henbury Park in Cheshire. No one expected the greys to spread so quickly, forcing the reds to retreat to Scotland from Wales, Ireland and England. This retreat is attributed to greys being stronger than reds, virtually outcompeting them for resources. In recent years, millions of pounds have been spent on monitoring programmes for native reds and extermination of greys. A recent study has provided some surprising and promising results; in areas were the pine marten (Martes martes) is thriving, the red squirrel is also recovering at the expense of the gray squirrel. This case provides an incidence of endangered species allying together against an alien species.

Pine martens had become considerably threatened as a result of deforestation and human persecution, becoming almost extinct in the middle of the 20th Century. These animals are mustelids with a wide range of feeding habits that also includes predation on smaller mammals. New research has uncovered that reds are prospering and greys are diminishing in numbers in areas where pine martens are increasing. This is welcoming news, as it is the first scientific study that exposes a reality were the greys' domination of the British Isles has ceased, and the reds are no longer retreating. Emma Sheehy from the University of Galway conducted her study on both martens and squirrels in the Irish midlands between 2009 and 2012. By conducting genetic analysis and scat analysis on pine martens, she concluded that three to four pine martens per square kilometer of woodland is sufficient to force out all of the gray squirrels. Faecal analysis indicates that pine martens eat a lot of greys, but this is not thought to be the only significant reason for the decline in gray squirrel populations. It is stipulated that this increase in pine martens is disrupting the feeding and breeding behaviours of greys.

So if the pine marten eats squirrels, why are the reds not suffering as well? While it is true that pine martens may eat reds if they get the chance, the greys are more brazen than their native cousins. Greys spend a longer time foraging on the ground than reds, so they are more easily targeted by pine martens. Such an unlikely union is fascinating to say the least, especially since it is resulting in two iconic British mammals recuperating.

The red squirrel and the pine marten – BFFs Forever! (Or at least whilst the gray squirrel is still around.)

By Antoine Borg Micallef

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