Friday, April 9, 2010

Natural History Education: On Squirrels and Ants

Recently I have been trying hard to not take for granted Massachusetts’s most ubiquitous wild mammal: the gray squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis. For a number of reasons squirrels get a bad rap. But they also present a unique opportunity to study wildlife, especially with young people. The fact that they are so ubiquitous means that there are very few places you can’t find squirrels. So you really can’t ask for a better model organism.

There are a number of ways to use squirrels to teach about animals. They can illustrate habitats and populations by encouraging students/young people to count the number of squirrels they can find in and around their yard or school. You can try to see if these numbers change seasonally or from year to year. It is often fairly easy to watch these creatures building nests and finding food. These interactions with their environment can show how animals get all they need from their habitats.

Getting even simpler than that, even the very young can practice their animal observation skills. This can be done in a couple of ways. The most basic practice can be done from in doors. Watch the squirrels for maybe fifteen or twenty minutes, of course depending on interest and attention span, and try to describe the kinds of behaviors you see. Maybe you can repeat the exercise a few times and see which behaviors are most common and which are the least common. Another way to use squirrels is to practice up-close wildlife observations. Encourage young people to be careful and quiet while approaching the animals. See how close you can get and how much of their behavior you can observe before the squirrel takes flight. Try it out with yard birds too.

The inner nerd can’t resist suggesting you introduce some basic phylogeny with squirrels. Talk about the fact that they are mammals. Find some birds, insects, maybe even a reptile or amphibian (it’s getting to be the time of year you can usually find toads and salamanders around) and discuss how they are similar and different.

Another great model organism is the ant. Ants, like squirrels, are ubiquitous. They also have very different behavior and societies from squirrels. They are vastly different phylogenetically, being part of the world’s biggest family of animals, the arthropods. Watching and studying insects can provide a great gateway to discuss animal relationships with young people. How are these creatures similar? How are they different? What makes an insect an insect?

One of the most rewarding natural history education experiences I have had was working with young people in community centers during my AmeriCorps year at the Providence Children’s Museum and taking them outside to look for wildlife. Two coworkers and I led “nature walks” out in whatever green space was available at the community centers and we were always able to find living things, especially insects. I remember one student in particular watching ants for probably twenty or thirty minutes, making detailed notes about their behaviors and social interactions. It really was a pleasure to see young people engaged in such amazing science. We also had very productive conversations about what it meant for something to be alive.

If you work with young people or have young people in your lives at home I encourage you to help them become young naturalists by using squirrels and ants as model organisms. They are easy to find and really quite interesting animals. A lot of young people have an innate curiosity about the natural world and it often doesn’t take much to produce some really solid science learning.


  1. i recently watched a program on on the squirrels in England and they were having a problem with the grey squirrels; apparently they carry a pox virus that is killing the red squirrel, so they are now instructed to kill grey squirrels. its was kinda sad to watch. it makes me wonder if this will happen here in the US~

  2. haven't visited in a while anyway love the squirrels and the ants. i have almost always defended them as creatures that are here sharing this space with us. of course until they are eating the heads off tulips or the flowers on the magnolia tree. i guess i am as guilty as everyone else.