Secretive squirrels and cold-blooded turtles: A guide to UR critters

June 18, 2021

Campus Life

During the summer, as students and faculty are away, UR’s animals are out in full force — enjoying the weather while also preparing for fall and winter. Longtime biology professor Peter Smallwood, an ecologist interested in conversation, discusses the behaviors of many of the animals we see seeing on campus — and ones you may see in your own backyard.   

What types of animals do we have on campus?

We have a pair of great blue herons, as well as fox, deer, and coyote. In the past, we’ve had a few more unusual animals sneak over from the James River, including an otter and beaver. From time to time, we will have a batch of cormorants, commonly known as snake birds, because they swim mostly underwater and only their long neck, which looks very much like a snake, sticks out. They typically pass through on an annual migration. Every few years we also seem to have a bald eagle and osprey hang out for a while. It’s quite rewarding to see the wildlife from year to year.

A quick trip around the lake will get you a glimpse of ducks and geese. You shouldn’t feed them by the way, though I know it’s tempting. With Canada geese, for example, I’ve seen them hang around long after they should have migrated because they have such easy food access.

What’s going on with squirrels this time of year?

Many people equate squirrels with acorns, but they are amazingly omnivorous and will pretty much eat anything they can find. I’ve seen them eat eggs, small birds, the buds of flowers, bark — you name it. They are excellent scavengers and frequent trash cans and landfills.

This time of year, “kids” are independent from mom and dad, and if you see squirrels playing together, they are likely siblings, though at some point they will become independent. Just a few months from now, usually in September, we will begin to see them store food for the winter. One squirrelly behavior many may not be aware of is what’s called deceptive caching, which means they will pretend to bury an acorn in one spot but really leave the hole empty. This behavior often happens when other squirrels are in the area. Squirrels find their acorns through smell and won’t hesitate to steal from others. Part of what they smell is disturbed dirt, so the deceptive caching could be an attempt to fool a fellow acorn hunter. It could also be a stress reaction. Here on campus, the most common squirrels are gray squirrels, but we also have red squirrels and flying squirrels, though the latter are nocturnal and tough to spot.

What about turtles?

There are at least seven different types of turtles in the lake on campus, including snapping turtles and red-eared sliders. We’ve been trapping turtles for more than a decade as part of a project I brought to UR where we were investigating skewed sex ratios in aquatic turtles. Turns out that was a fluke; however, turtle trapping has now become a tradition in our introductory biology classes and allows us to monitor species’ composition and size and to notice if a new species is introduced.

Turtles behave differently in the warmer months compared to cooler ones. Unlike a dog or cat, turtles don’t make their own body heat, which essentially means when they are colder, they are slower. This time of year, you will see them dwelling on the surface much more often as they come up to bask and warm in the sun. This helps them digest and move faster. In the winter, they go into a hibernation-type mode where their metabolism is much slower, and they could hang out on the bottom of the lake for long periods of time without issue.

As turtles, mostly the females, leave the comfort of the water and look for a place to lay eggs, it’s not unusual to come across one on the road or in an area you wouldn’t expect to see them. First — do not get hit by a car or risk your own safety to help a turtle; however, if it’s safe to do so, if you move a turtle out of harm’s way, pay attention to the direction they were heading in. They know where they are going, so if you place one back on the wrong side of road, it will just get right back in the same predicament. And steer clear of those snapping turtles. Their neck range is incredible, and for a bigger one, their bite could take off a finger. We have a giant snapper in the lake at UR that I call Quasimodo, and I would guess he’s easily 50 years old.