See a Squirrel? These Citizen Scientists Want to Know About It

Jamie Allen
Jamie Allen

If you spot a squirrel, Jamie Allen wants to know about it. In 2011, Allen, an Atlanta-based writer, found himself wondering exactly how many squirrels there were in the world around him. And so he and another squirrel-curious friend decided to launch the Squirrel Census, an effort to count all the squirrels in his neighborhood. Several woodland-rodent tallies later, the Squirrel Census has gone national.

The first squirrel count began in Atlanta’s Inman Park, where Allen lives, in the spring of 2012, followed by another in the fall of 2015. For each, the Squirrel Census team created an elaborate visual guide to the data for the public, squirrel-obsessed and not. Now, this fall, the project is branching out. Allen and his fellow squirrel counters are organizing a Central Park Squirrel Census for October 2018 with help from local universities, the New York City Parks Department, and other groups.

A person holds up an oversized map.
Squirrel Census

According to the Squirrel Census website, the project is focused “on the Eastern gray (Sciurus carolinensis), his pals, and his mortal enemies.” With its distinctly whimsical site design, filled with animated squirrels and an unexplained pop-up image of author Tom Clancy, you’d be forgiven for thinking the wildlife census is somewhat of a lark. And it is partly a storytelling exercise—the 2016 version of the Squirrel Census report, called Land of a Thousand Squirrels, included not just infographics and a map on the Inman Park squirrel population, but fiction and “general fun,” as Allen told Mental Floss in an email. But it has real scientific methodology, too.

The Squirrel Census team includes an Emory University epidemiologist, a veterinarian, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife fire specialist, and a wildlife illustrator, as well as a small legion of designers, fundraisers, logistics specialists, and other supporters. To estimate squirrel populations, the team uses an established wildlife-counting formula that has previously been used by scientists to study events like the Great Squirrel Migration of 1968. They break the area they want to study into quadrants and send volunteers out with clipboards, maps, and specific questions to tally squirrels over a set amount of time.

A close-up of a map of squirrel sightings
Squirrel Census

Since the first census, Allen and the Squirrel Census team have thrown events to bring their results to the public, spoken at Emory University and other colleges about their methods and results, and launched an iPhone app, called Squirrel Sighter, to allow citizen scientists to contribute data from around the world. Each time a user indicates they've seen a squirrel (dead or alive) in the app, the Atlanta-based Squirrel Census team gets an update with data on the date and time, the location of the sighting, and the weather conditions there.

The app, and the census itself, is meant as a way to “attract people to the idea of sighting squirrels, which are normally so common as to be invisible,” according to Allen, as well as to encourage people to “realize the strange joy of just taking a moment to get outside of their own heads and pay attention to something else.” And of course, in the process, they’ll gather a huge chunk of data that can be used to study wildlife populations in urban areas.

“There are many reasons to do any wildlife census,” Allen tells Mental Floss. “Information is power, it's educational, and our data has been used in academic studies on squirrel populations. But for me, the simple idea of a census allows people to appreciate their surroundings in entirely different and new ways.”

These Nature Posters Show the Most Endangered Animal in Each State

NetCredit
NetCredit

The U.S. has more than 1300 endangered or threatened species, from South Dakota's black-footed ferret to Colorado's Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly to the blue whales that live off the coast of Alaska. These wild animals could disappear if prompt wildlife conservation measures aren't taken, and people are largely to blame. Globally, human activities are the direct cause of 99 percent of threatened animal classifications, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Some of these animals may even be in your backyard. A research team commissioned by NetCredit used data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to highlight the most endangered animal in each state. For this project, "most endangered" refers to the animals that face the greatest risk of extinction. An art director and designer then teamed up to create gorgeous illustrations of each animal.

Since some regions are home to many of the same creatures, a different animal was selected from the shortlist of endangered species in cases where there were duplicates from one state to the next. The goal was to cast light on as many threatened species as possible, including the ones that rarely make headlines.

"We hope this will start a conversation around the fact that it's not just the iconic species we see on nature documentaries that we're at risk of losing forever," the research team said in a statement.

Take the black-footed ferret, for instance. It's the only ferret that's native to North America, but its ranks have dwindled as its main food source—prairie dogs—becomes harder to find. Prairie dog eradication programs and loss of the ferret's habitat (due to farming) are some of the factors to blame. A ferret breeding colony was established in the past, but only 200 to 300 of the animals still remain, rendering them critically endangered.

To learn more about some of America's most at-risk species, check out the posters below and visit NetCredit's website for the full report.

California's Point Arena mountain beaver
NetCredit

Alaska's blue whale
NetCredit

South Carolina's frosted flatwoods salamander
NetCredit

Minnesota's rusty patched bumble bee
NetCredit

New York's Eastern massasauga snake
NetCredit

West Virginia's Virginia big-eared bat
NetCredit

Florida's red wolf
NetCredit

The poster of endangered wildlife in all 50 states
NetCredit

The West Coast Is Preparing for Another Super Bloom

iStock.com/Ron_Thomas
iStock.com/Ron_Thomas

In spring of 2017, people flocked to Southern California's deserts to see fields of wildflowers brightening the normally sparse terrain. That level of vegetation, also known as a super bloom, is an event that only occurs after winters of heavier-than-average precipitation. Now just two years later, the rare sight is about to return to California's Anza-Borrego desert, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The 2018/2019 winter season was an unusually wet one for California. Between October 1 and the beginning of February, Downtown Los Angeles saw 12.91 inches of rain, which is approximately 167 percent more than the seasonal average. All that precipitation will produce an explosion of color when spring arrives in Anza-Borrego desert three hours southeast of Los Angeles. Experts predict the 2019 super bloom could start as early as late February and last through March.

If the last super bloom is any indication, this year's event will attract crowds of sight-seers. Anywhere from 250,000 to 500,000 people visited the desert to look at and snap pictures of the flowers in 2017. Many local communities were overwhelmed by the influx of tourists, but this time around they know what to expect. Portable toilets will be set up around popular sites, and thousands of maps of showing where the flower fields, gas stations, and toilets are located are ready to be passed out to drivers.

Visitors also have a few things to learn from the past super bloom. Two years ago, foot traffic in places like the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve was so heavy that trails had to be closed down to protect delicate flowers from selfie-taking tourists.

[h/t Los Angeles Times]

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