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'Project Squirrel' App Invites Chicagoans to Help Track City's Squirrels

By Paul Biasco | December 16, 2013 7:03am
 Steve Sullivan, the head scientist behind Project Squirrel.
Steve Sullivan, the head scientist behind Project Squirrel.
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Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

LINCOLN PARK — Project Squirrel wants you to become a citizen scientist and help track and catalog the city's squirrel populations.

Back in 1997 when Project Squirrel was created, pen and paper was just about the only way for citizens to send in their observations, usually through the mail.

All that changed this week when Steve Sullivan and his team launched the Project Squirrel smartphone app.

Sullivan, who runs Project Squirrel and is also the curator of urban ecology at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, hopes the app will lead to a whole new batch of citizen scientists joining the team.

One of the project's goals is to learn about the multiple species of squirrels that live in North America and to understand the effects of urbanization and human activity on the animal landscape.

 Screengrabs of the Project Squirrel App, which launched this week.
Screengrabs of the Project Squirrel App, which launched this week.
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"Squirrels really become the perfect organism to answer these sort of urban ecology questions," Sullivan said. 

Because squirrels are so active 365 days of the year, live in small areas and are easily recognizable, they are the ideal species for the project.

The idea is to understand the ecology of Chicago's neighborhoods, the suburbs and eventually urban areas around the country, through a squirrel's eyes, Sullivan said.

While Project Squirrel has taken submissions on its website for a few years, the new app takes the convenience of data entry to a whole new level.

Open the app, click submit data, enter the time and location and select how many squirrels you spotted (there are four species listed along with photos of each.)

The app then leads you through a few questions to determine what kinds of trees were in the area, how often you see birds in the area eating from a bird feeder or garbage, and how often you see dogs, cats or other predators near the site.

"A citizen scientist doesn't need to be anybody who has any particular special training or special skills," Sullivan said. "They simply need to be a person who notices something and has a desire to record it."

The app, which is free in the App Store for iOS and the Google Play Store for Android devices, also allows users to photograph the squirrels and pinpoint their locations on a map.

The two main species of squirrels in Chicago are the gray squirrel and the fox squirrel.

In some of the city's neighborhoods, both can be found, while in others only one of the species lives.

Why is that the case? Are certain human activities and aspects of urbanization the reason?

Those are questions that Sullivan hopes Project Squirrel can answer.

For those looking to join the citizen scientist ranks, a gray squirrel has a white belly and a tail that is frosted in white on the edges, while a fox squirrel has a rust-colored belly with a tail outlined in black.

About 5,000 people have contributed to the project through online submissions from across the country, but the majority are from Chicago.

A class of second-graders from Boston regularly submit observations, according to Sullivan, and on the other coast, a man who lives in Los Angeles has been submitting four observations a year for years.

Even if a citizen scientist doesn't spot a squirrel, the absence of squirrels in an area is equally important and that data should be submitted, Sullivan said.

Everyone knows what a squirrel looks like, Sullivan argues, and because the animals seem to live side-by-side with humans without conflict, they were the easy choice to study.

"If you see a rat in your yard, you are going to try to kill the rat," Sullivan said. "If you see a squirrel in your yard, even if you hate squirrels, are you going to make the effort to kill a squirrel?"