Science Says What? is a month-to-month column written by Nice Lakes now contributor Sharon Oosthoek exploring what science can inform us about what’s occurring beneath and above the waves of our beloved Nice Lakes and their watershed.

The final couple a long time have been good to southern flying squirrels within the higher reaches of the Nice Lakes.

Like different species around the globe, these tree-top dwelling rodents have reacted to warming temperatures by advancing northward. Of their case, by gliding below the quilt of darkness from tree to tree utilizing flaps of pores and skin between their entrance and rear legs. Profiting from air resistance, they’ll glide about 3 times so far as their beginning peak whereas utilizing their tails as rudders.

As we speak, southern flying squirrels are routinely present in Ontario’s Algonquin Park, roughly 62 miles (100 km) from their historic northern restrict and solidly within the territory of a separate species of squirrel – northern flying squirrels.

Jeff Bowman, a inhabitants ecologist with the Ontario Ministry of Pure Assets and Forestry and a professor at Trent College in Peterborough, was the primary to note their northern creep and continues to comply with their progress. His analysis is uncovering some intriguing implications.

Again in 2003, he found that the place the 2 species overlapped, a few of their infants seemed a bit like southerners and a bit like northerners.

Whereas each have protruding, nearly comical-looking eyes, and may flatten their our bodies like furry pancakes for aerodynamic gliding, southern squirrels are smaller and have pure white stomach fur. The bigger northerners have two-toned gray-white bellies.

However Bowman was discovering some southern-sized squirrels with mottled grey-white stomach fur.

Not surprisingly, he additionally found each species sharing tree cavities, the place squirrels cuddle collectively for heat on frigid winter nights. And make infants.

DNA evaluation would later verify the strange-looking squirrels have been in actual fact hybrids and Bowman’s discovery would grow to be the primary documented instance of crossbreeding following the enlargement of a species’ vary on account of trendy local weather change.

Jeff Bowman weighing a squirrel. (Picture Credit score: James Proffitt)

Hybrids 101

To grasp what’s at stake, first a brief primer on hybrids: Crossbreeding wildlife will not be new, however human-induced adjustments akin to world warming, improvement and the introduction of non-native creatures are bringing collectively beforehand separated species.

Whereas there aren’t any baseline research to indicate there are extra hybrids than nature supposed, anecdotal proof is mounting.

Within the Pacific Northwest, crossings between noticed and barred owls threaten the tiny inhabitants of noticed owls whose outdated development forest habitat has been squeezed by logging. Throughout western North America, pure cutthroat trout populations have declined as they breed with numerous launched species of trout. And in central and japanese North America, the pink wolf/coyote cross is a long-standing instance of hybridization ensuing from human improvement.

Crossbreeding can have a number of penalties, none of them nicely understood. It may improve genetic variety, serving to species climate speedy ecosystem adjustments – maybe Mom Nature’s reply to the upheavals people have wrought.

But when hybrids are higher suited to a modified habitat than both of their dad and mom, it may result in the dilution of the genetics of their dad or mum species, even past recognition. In that case, the hybrids may turn into the dominant species, or what’s often called a “swarm.”

Bowman is now fairly assured this isn’t occurring with the squirrels. His analysis reveals the hybrids have been holding regular for the previous 20 years at just below 5 % of the inhabitants.

Whereas they’ll breed with one another and their dad or mum species, they don’t appear to be doing loads of that and it’s most likely as a result of they’re not as nicely suited to the habitat. Northerners are good at withstanding chilly, whereas southerners are good at combating off illness from hotter climes. Maybe their hybrid infants are able to neither.

Regardless of the subject, they don’t appear to be residing lengthy sufficient to breed past the 5 % threshold. They might in essence be a genetic lifeless finish.

But it surely’s arduous to know prematurely if a hybrid’s novel mixture of genes will hurt or assist. One instance of a genetic gamble that didn’t work out so nicely: Grizzly/polar bear crossbreeds in a German zoo excelled at searching seals however didn’t have the sturdy swimming talents of their polar forebears.

Bowman and his staff not too long ago sequenced the hybrid squirrels’ genomes to determine what genetic adjustments is perhaps liable for their lack of ability to extend their inhabitants, however don’t but have outcomes.

Graduate pupil, Rebekah Persad, on the lookout for truffles (typical northern squirrel meals). (Picture Credit score: James Proffitt)

Disaster averted?

Within the meantime, he’s watching intently to see what impact all three kinds of squirrels’ habits may need on northern forests. Bowman’s graduate pupil, Rebekah Persad, for instance not too long ago discovered their eating preferences have vital implications.

Northerners are inclined to eat fungus – mushrooms and truffles— spreading fungal spores and nitrogen-fixing micro organism as they defecate all through the forest. That is vital as a result of northern forests rely upon each spores and nitrogen to create connections between roots that enable timber to share water and soil vitamins.

However southern flyers are largely seed eaters, having advanced in seed-producing deciduous forests. In the event that they take over from their northern cousins within the coniferous forests and don’t turn into fungus-eaters, that would put the entire ecosystem in danger.

Fortunately, it appears southerners aren’t fussy eaters and Persad’s early analysis suggests they – and their hybrid infants – could also be switching up their diets to incorporate fungus.

That could possibly be excellent news for northern forests. For now, anyway.

As we people proceed to take away obstacles between species, it could imply extra hybrids, together with extra questions on their impression on new habitats.

Catch extra information at Nice Lakes Now: 

Science Says What? What’s up with dissolved natural carbon (AKA why is my native stream murky?)

Science Says What? How Fifth-graders counting crops can result in optimistic change

Featured picture: Southern flying squirrel. (Picture Credit score: James Proffitt)

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