UC Davis

Science matters: Why you should know about the ESA conference

By From page A1 | August 10, 2014

0810 Wells squirrel trap1W

Caitlin Wells, a behavioral ecology Ph.D. student at UCD, safely traps a golden-mantled ground squirrel for her research. Courtesy photo

Come to the Science Café

What: A conversation with Simon Brandl and Madhusudan Katti, two presenters from the Ecological Society of America conference, who will discuss “Big City Life: of Urban Flamingoes and Coral Reef Villages”
When: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 13
Where: de Vere’s Irish Pub, 217 E St., downtown Davis
How much: The event, which is free and open to the public, is hosted by professor Jared T. Shaw and the UC Davis Division of Mathematical and Physical Sciences

“Think about the last 100 years of ecological research. What do the next 100 years hold?” asked Liza Lester, the communications officer for the Ecological Society of America, the largest organization of professional ecologists.

As the ESA starts its conference Sunday — its 99th annual — this is a question on many ecologists’ minds. And the theme, “From oceans to mountains” is why Sacramento makes an ideal place to host the meeting. Presentations, talks and poster sessions will take place at the Sacramento Convention Center through Friday. The full schedule can be found at the conference website, http://esa.org/am.

Lester said the conference organizers look at a variety of factors when choosing the conference’s location, including environmental friendliness of the venue — “Does the meeting facility recycle?” — to the proximity to areas of research.

According to the conference’s website, “For ecologists, Sacramento is well located in the heart of California’s biodiversity in the Central Valley, between the Pacific Ocean and the interior deserts, the Coast Ranges and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.”

Lester also pointed out that activities that are “ecologically interesting, like the mountains, the delta, the ocean” are a big draw to the conference attendees.

“The primary goal (of the annual conference) is to bring environmental and ecological scientists together to talk about research over the past year,” Lester explained. Although they often communicate via journals, the conference is a “great place to make connections, especially for the young scientists who need to meet in person.”

She described the ESA conference as “very friendly to young scientists,” which is why The Enterprise has chosen to highlight some of the young UC Davis researchers who will be presenting this week in a series of profiles.

Research being conducted by UCD graduate students and post-grads ranges from atmospheric rivers in Lake Tahoe, to selecting trees for urban forests, to bats in California agriculture.

To whet your appetite for the coming week of profiles, let’s start with Caitlin Wells’ research on how ground squirrels manipulate the sex of their offspring.

Six years ago, binoculars pressed to her face, Caitlin Wells stared at a golden-mantled ground squirrel, who was perched on her rock eating a breakfast of seeds near the dining hall at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.

“A lot of people confuse them with chipmunks, but they don’t have stripes on their face, their noses aren’t quite as pointy and they have this really sexy white eye ring,” said Wells, a behavioral ecology Ph.D. student at UCD.

Ten thousand feet up in the Colorado Rockies, the laboratory provides a research base for 140 to 200 scientists each summer. Wells studies the reproductive cycles of ground squirrels that live throughout the high altitudes of the Western United States.

“They’re kind of like wild lab rats,” Wells said. “They grow up fast.”

Female ground squirrels establish their territory by creating and defending burrows, possibly with a sister or a daughter. These homes last generations — decades, even. When they give birth, usually in litters of three to seven, certain environmental stressors dictate the gender ratio of her children. Wells and the lab staff she works with are trying to figure out exactly what causes more sons or daughters to be born.

“The goal is to figure out how to change, increase, decrease reproduction and apply that understanding to populations of endangered species,” Wells said.

So far, certain trends stand out. If there are more than two females per hectare, they tend to fight each other for territory.

“When things are really crowded, their young daughters are going to get driven out. In that case, it’s better to produce sons,” Wells said.

If there aren’t very many females, then, naturally, daughters would benefit the survival of the population.

That summer six years ago — her first year at the lab — there were just five female ground squirrels in the 7-hectare preserve her professor, Dirk Van Vuren, had been studying for 20 years.

So each ground squirrel that summer became especially valuable, particularly when she gave birth and cared for her brood.

That afternoon, a day in the month between when the squirrels gave birth and when the young would emerge and scamper into the wilderness, Wells decided to do her laundry in town. She climbed into her dust-coated green Subaru Outback and drove the 6 miles to a laundromat in Crested Butte, the nearest town.

She stepped out of the car.

“And I see this shape go by that I know is a ground squirrel because I’m highly attuned to it.”

Which is weird, because ground squirrels are rare at the town’s lower elevation.

“I look closer, and see that she has ear tags. She’s the one from the dining hall.”

“And my heart sank. I brought this squirrel to the laundromat.”

Rodents like wheel wells because they’re warm, cozy and misleadingly seem like a good place to rest.

“So I start trying to herd this squirrel into first my purse, unsuccessfully, then went to the gas station to get a cardboard box, peanut butter and sunflower seeds. Meanwhile, everyone in the laundromat is pressed against the window watching this crazy woman run around the parking lot.”

Eventually, Wells successfully herded the squirrel back into the wheel well, and whipped back up to the laboratory, hoping the squirrel has made it with her.

And then she watched her car. For an hour — and nothing.

“This squirrel had jumped up into my car, so I’m kind of beside myself. Because if she dies, her litter will die. They’ll just starve underground,” Wells said.

One dead squirrel would mean only four females would be left in the reserve — not devastating to her research, but the end of a generation.

She decided she would return to town the next morning to try to trap it, in the hopes that her squirrel had just jumped out before she could start the car and return home.

“And so I went out the next morning, and she’s there, sitting on her usual rock, eating her usual seeds, and I am simultaneously happy and so mad at her.”

The brood survived: five boys, one girl.

“I’m still following some of them to this day.”

— Enterprise staff writer Tanya Perez contributed to this story.

Elizabeth Case

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