The SCquirrels are here to stay

Follow a USC professor through the process of tracking the university’s furry friends

A squirrel takes a strawberry from the offering hand of a student.

Students aren’t the only ones calling USC home.

With hundreds of squirrels on campus, it may be difficult to spot the differences among them. However, there is a scurry of squirrels that don’t look like the rest.

These critters, squirrels 501, 611 and 632, wear a special accessory: a collar. They are part of a larger experiment inspired by Professor Jenny Duggan at California State Monterey Bay.

USC Professors Matt Dean and Jim Dines are the masterminds behind it all, dedicating some of their BISC-363 (Mammalogy) class to squirrel observation.

“Really why we’re doing this is just because it’s fun,” Dean said.

The class syllabus gives a brief overview of the semester plans.

“The entire class will take part in documenting squirrel ecology on USC’s campus. This will entail observing them for identifying features, and marking out their territories,” reads the syllabus. “We may also trap, tag, and release some to enable more careful individual identification. We may also genotype them to learn about their familial relationships.”

Dean’s method involves a large radio tracking device that is nearly half his body size. The tool acts like a metal detector; as Dean holds the device up, it beeps when a radio collar-wearing squirrel is sensed nearby. The louder the beep, the closer the squirrel’s proximity.

“It’s like playing hide and seek with the squirrels,” Dean said. “We take the GPS, and we know the exact tree and are able to follow that up on Google Maps, and then we know their movements and a lot of the squirrels don’t move very much at all.”

Once located, Dean records where he found the squirrel and other tracking-related details, like the frequency of the squirrels’ collars.

The experiment began on April 8, 2021, with one to two squirrels collared each week until there was a total of nine-collared squirrels for the experiment. As of October 13, only three have been tracked - 501, 611, 632.

The disappearance of the squirrels does not necessarily mean they died. It is common for the collars to run out of battery or for the squirrels to pull them off.

Each squirrel has a geographical location on campus it prefers, Dean said. Squirrel 501 enjoys the trees outside of Norris Theatre. Squirrel 611 spends its time in the grassy area near the ASCJ building. Squirrel 632 also spends its time near 611 but has been recorded in the same tree since the last data collection.

Although the squirrels call campus home, they are not native to Southern California, Dean said. The eastern fox squirrel, from east of the Mississippi, are tame and often have no problem interacting with humans when food is in the picture.

“They’re really tame, and they’re funny. If you crinkle candy wrappers or something, they come up and look at you,” Dean said. “And then they kind of get mad at you if you don’t give them the food.”

Without students, who make up a majority of the waste and litter at USC, the squirrels aren’t fed as well. Dean said that during the year and a half that classes were held remotely due to the pandemic, the animals were “confused” about the disappearance of the student population.

As normalcy resumes, the squirrels return to feasting on snacks.

“Cashews are their favorite,” Dean said.

BISC-363L will be offered again in the spring semester with professors Dean and Dines.