TWS Member Gets Up Close with Squirrels

By Dana Kobilinsky

Panda Breeding Center in China Koprowski stands with children visiting the Panda Breeding Center in China. Koprowski traveled to China to teach students about the importance of biodiversity.
Image Credit: Dun Wang

John Koprowski stood in an urban park in Kansas with binoculars pressed to his eyes. He was conducting a study as part of his PhD thesis research and was intently observing a female eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) carry each of her seven babies from one nest in a tree to the base of a nearby tree. Each baby squirrel wrapped its feet around its mother’s head, with its own head tucked under her chin. “The mother squirrel kind of looked like it had a giant head,” Koprowski recalled.

Smith’s bush squirrel

John Koprowski handles a Smith’s bush squirrel (Paraxerus cepapi) in Africa. Koprowski and collaborators hope to learn how squirrels influence regeneration of forests where elephants have caused damage in Africa.
Image Credit: Mike Stokes

While the mother probably intended for all of her young to wait patiently while she carried each one up to their new nest, the baby squirrels scurried off in different directions. One squirrel ran straight toward what it thought was another tree — one with binoculars and arms and legs — 6-foot-2-inch Koprowski. “The youngster went up my face and on top of my head,” Koprowski said.

Suddenly, the mother noticed Koprowski with her baby on his head and bolted toward him, ready to attack. Koprowski, startled, began running from the protective mother squirrel. “Like any good mother, she wouldn’t give up,” he said. After a few seconds of running around with a squirrel on his head while onlookers stood staring at the fiasco, Koprowski shook the baby squirrel off of his head onto a nearby tree. It was hard to tell who was more relieved — Koprowski or the mother squirrel.

While most people haven’t had this kind of close encounter with a squirrel, many have equally memorable stories about the thriving species that are a familiar backyard sight. People care about their welfare, which in turn helps with conservation of squirrels and related species. According to Koprowski, this aspect of squirrels makes them an important and useful species for wildlife conservation in general. His early experience with them led to a lifetime of interest in the species.

Now a professor of wildlife conservation and management at the University of Arizona and a member of The Wildlife Society for almost 30 years, he has continued to focus on squirrels in his research. Although Koprowski has done some work with other species, he always seems to come back to these small and widely recognized rodents indigenous to the Americas, Eurasia and Africa. In June, he will deliver the opening plenary, “ Listen to the chatter: what can squirrels teach us about conservation in a changing world?” at the Seventh International Colloquium on Arboreal Squirrels in Helsinki, Finland, a conference that occurs every three years.

Why Squirrels?

Abert’s squirrel

A juvenile Abert’s squirrel (Sciurus aberti) climbs on a tree branch in Arizona.
Image Credit: Jonathan Derbridge

The topic of the plenary is one that Koprowski sees evidence of every day as a squirrel researcher. Aside from the element of human interest that surrounds squirrels, they are also good indicators of changes in the environment, according to Koprowski. As forests become fragmented and disrupt their habitat, squirrels still can be easily found, telling us a lot about climate change and other changes caused by humans.

Certain species of squirrels such as eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are also very common, making them a convenient species to study. There are 285 squirrel species in the world, Koprowski said, and the fact that most are active during the day also makes them conspicuous and easy to find.

Mt. Graham red squirrel

A Mt. Graham red squirrel. This species of squirrels is the most endangered in America.

Koprowski is currently conducting a long-term project over 25 years on America’s most endangered squirrel, the Mt. Graham red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus grahamensis). He is studying factors such as fire and insect damage in high elevation coniferous forests that influence the status of the squirrel population which includes only about 250 individuals. He also has extended his work to South Africa in collaboration with Mike Stokes at Western Kentucky University to observe the role of squirrels and other rodents in regenerating forests in areas where elephants are causing damage. In China, he is using a diverse array of squirrels and other seed-eating rodents as an indicator of climate change in high elevations where giant pandas live. “Overall, we are interested in using squirrels as indicators of forest change and climate change over time,” he said.

While Koprowski hasn’t had such a riveting encounter with a squirrel since he was a PhD student, his excitement about the small, bushy tailed species hasn’t faltered over the years as he’s traveled all over the world to teach children about squirrels, including the Panda Breeding Center in China where he taught students about the importance of biodiversity, and to remote areas to study them. Along with three other authors, he also published the book Squirrels of the World in 2012, which is a comprehensive examination of all squirrel species globally.

“Squirrels help us study how ecosystems are changing, and the recovery from these changes is critical,” he said. “The challenges involve humans as well as natural systems. We can help effect change with management elements. It’s an exciting time to be a wildlife biologist.”

Dana KobilinskyDana Kobilinsky is a science writer at The Wildlife Society. Contact her at with any questions or comments about her article. You can follow her on Twitter at @DanaKobi.

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