By Chad Dundas
SPOKANE — Squirrels that scamper across the Gonzaga University campus have an even wilder look about them these days.
With their fur dyed black, red and green, and sometimes reckless behavior, the arboreal rodents could be compared to some freshmen who live in DeSmet Hall.
But their punk hairdos, and a stuffed bobcat that roams the campus on a motorized cart, are all in the name of science.
Hugh Lefcort’s summer biology project is the reason for the squirrels’ unusual colors. They’re being dyed so Lefcort and his student researchers can tell them apart at a distance.
The squirrels’ reckless behavior is at the heart of Lefcort’s project.
The associate professor in biology is studying whether squirrels that have parasites are less cautious than their healthy counterparts. Parasites often cause reckless behavior in other animals, such as snails and tadpoles, he says.
Some parasites don’t like to wait for animals to die, "because it can take a long period of time," Lefcort says. "So what the parasites do is, they actually have ways to make the first infected animal careless, like a rabid dog is careless."
Like many universities in the Northwest, Gonzaga’s 110-acre campus is overrun with cuddly rodents in the summer months. Because most of the squirrels already carry parasites, such as tapeworms and fleas, Lefcort traps them and injects them with anti-parasite drugs.
Golfball-sized lumps of peanut butter, molasses and oats are used to lure the squirrels into traps.
Lefcort leaves his name and phone number posted on the metal mesh traps and often has to reassure concerned residents that he’s not harming the squirrels.
The 40-minute process doesn’t seem to bother the rodents, says Lefcort, who sometimes watches the traps from nearby bushes.
"They keep coming back, so it must be worth it," he said. "They know (we) just let them go."
Trapping the squirrels is so easy, it’s actually become something of a problem for the study, Lefcort says. They just can’t seem to keep their paws off the free food, and the same squirrels keep coming back to the traps.
A female squirrel marked with red stripes is the most gluttonous of the bunch. She’s been trapped at least four times. Because she’s already been vaccinated, the researchers immediately release her.
Lefcort color codes the squirrels with streaks of black and red stripes or dots of green and releases them.
He and his students wait to see if the treated squirrels are more alert than their neighbors to the threat of predators.
A stuffed bobcat sitting atop a remote control cart is used to simulate danger. Lefcort measures how quickly the squirrels bolt from the bobcat.
The squirrels see the bobcat as an enemy because house cats prowl Gonzaga’s urban campus at night, Lefcort said.
"The squirrels take it pretty seriously," he says. "They’re not scared of humans, but they are scared of cats. I mean, those house cats, they don’t kid around."
Lefcort said he got the idea for the bobcat on wheels as a graduate student, after reading a paper about a similar study. He bought the stuffed cat for $230 on an Internet auction site.
A $29,600 grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust pays for the summer project, as well as a larger separate study on the effects of heavy metals on snails.
Results from the squirrel study are still being analyzed, but Lefcort plans to submit his findings to national science journals.
"Students love it," he said. "It’s a summer side project, but it’s also serious work."
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