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.”