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Two seniors tracked the seasonal activity of Eastern gray squirrels at five locations around Hillsdale. Julia Hoyda | Courtesy

While the squirrels scampering around campus are merely scenery for many students’ walks to class, two senior biology majors have made the squirrels their research subjects for their ongoing animal behavior research projects. 

Seniors Julia Hoyda and Luiza Wasilewski’s project tracks the nut preference and caching activity of eastern gray squirrels — one of the six squirrel species in Michigan, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. 

For the project, Wasilewski monitored five locations around Hillsdale for five weeks during the summer, and Hoyda is monitoring them throughout the fall. The students placed trays containing seeds, cracked walnuts, and whole walnuts at each location. 

The researchers observe the trays and track how the squirrels react to them. They note what type of food is taken, if any, and what the squirrels do with the food.

The project will shed light on how squirrels prepare for seasonal changes, according to Hoyda.

“Ideally, we’ll find the squirrels will not be as active in the summer as in the fall,” Hoyda said. “The squirrels should be more likely to choose the more nutritious walnuts in the fall than in summer.”

Hoyda said the expected increase in the activity of the squirrels during the fall would be the result of the squirrels preparing for winter. 

Hoyda also said she expects the squirrels to be more likely to choose cracked walnuts rather than whole walnuts in the fall in order to save time that could be used to prepare for winter.

The idea to research the nut preference and caching activity of Eastern gray squirrels originally came from Wasilewski.

“I was originally interested in doing an animal behavior project that would involve field work,” Wasilewski said in an email. “The idea to study Eastern gray squirrels grew from those two interests and many conversations with my research adviser.” 

Hoyda elected to repeat the research Wasilewski had done during the summer in the fall in order to produce a cross-seasonal comparison of the squirrels’ habits.

“This project will help me get my foot in the door, and I’ll be able to show I have completed research,” Hoyda said. “That experience is a lot of what graduate programs want to see.”

Wasilewski said her research adviser, Professor of Biology Angela Pytel, helped prepare her and Hoyda for the project and has answered their questions along the way.

“Professor Pytel taught me how to prepare data collection and how to conduct field work,” Wasilewski said in an email. “She has also been an incredible source of support and advice throughout the research process.”

Hoyda also said Pytel was always willing to lend a helping hand during the course of the project.

“Professor Pytel has been really wonderful and is always there to give advice and answer questions,” Hoyda said. 

Both researchers said performing the research has helped them prepare for their future careers. Hoyda is currently applying to graduate schools and said she plans to earn a doctorate degree in neuroscience, while Wasilewski will take a gap year while applying to graduate programs and working.

“I’ve certainly learned patience,” Hoyda said. “Not having results can be significant. Learning that and really experiencing that is important, especially for future research.”