The Alpine Squirrel Population Ecology Research project

Luc Wauters

The Alpine Squirrel Population Ecology Research project celebrates 10 years. Run by Italian scientists, the project is building a fascinating long-term data set on the population dynamics and food resources of red squirrels Sciurus vulgaris living in montane and subalpine conifer forests. There are new opportunities for post-graduate biologists to join in the research programme.

The ASPER (Alpine Squirrel Population Ecology Research) Project: celebrating 10 years

The ASPER studies have been going on for 10 years and are entering a stage whereby the time-series data on population demography and abundance of food resources are suitable to explore habitat selection and local adaptation by red squirrels to the different montane and subalpine conifer forests-types that form the heterogeneous landscape of one of Europe’s biodiversity hotspots, the Alps. Acquiring this knowledge is essential to define red squirrel sanctuaries that must be, at all costs, kept free from expanding grey squirrel populations.

Current research is continuing at 6 study sites: 4 in Central Lombardy Alps and 2 in the Western Alps. For the period 2009-2012 the project leaders are looking for early-stage researchers from EU countries which are interested to participate to the ASPER project. Potential funding might be available in the FP-7-PEOPLE Mari Curie Actions. This EU-program offers fellowships and grants at two levels:

  • Activity 1: Initial Training of Researchers = 1 MARIE CURIE ACTION: INITIAL TRAINING NETWORKS (ITN): Post-graduate Ph.D. grants for Early-stage Researchers that want to obtain a Ph.D. degree in a European country different from where they resided or carried out main activity in the past 12 months. For the moment there are no calls open; nxet call is expected for second half of 2009.
  • Activity 2: Life-long Training and Career Development = 2.1 MARIE CURIE ACTION: INTRA-EUROPEAN FELLOWSHIPS FOR CAREER DEVELOPMENT (IEF)

Call Reference FP7-PEOPLE -2009-IEF (OJ CO63 of 18 march 2009): deadline of this call 18/08/2009 at 17:00 Brussels local time, see the information package online.

Introduction and objective of the action: to support the career development of experienced researchers (post-doc) at different stages of their careers, and seeks to enhance their individual competence diversification in terms of skill acquisition at multi- or interdisciplinary level. Support is foreseen for individual, trans-national, intra-European fellowships awarded directly at Community level, to the best or most promising researchers from Member States, based on an application made by the researchers in conjunction with the host organisations.

Technical content/scope:

Projects and participants: This action provides financial support for advanced training and trans-national mobility, for a period of 12 to 24 months (full-time equivalent), for individual projects presented by experienced researchers active in Member States in liaison with a host organisation from another Member State or Associated country. The research topic will be chosen by the researcher in collaboration with the host, with a view to achieving a diversification of competences and developing his/her career in a European context.

The ASPER project is run by University of Insubria, Varese (Università degli Studi dell’Insubria, Varese), Italy (host organisation for the project); the name of the Principal Investigator (PI) is Lucas Wauters, the head of the research group is Prof. Guido Tosi.

We propose the following project for an IEF grant:

Proposed title: Interactive effects of consumer fitness, genetic variation and parasites, on producer-consumer dynamics in pulsed resource systems.

Proposal duration: 24 months

Proposal summary

An individual’s fitness is the result of how it optimises resource allocation to survival and reproduction. Reproduction and survival are often constrained by the distribution and abundance of critical resources, especially food. In many temperate ecosystems, resources occur in unpredictable pulses, creating lagged responses in successive trophic levels. So far, consumer dynamics have been mainly explored by studying the effect of producer dynamics on consumer demography. However, the mechanisms underlying the consumer’s response and their interaction with seasonal, age-related and other sources of variation in individual condition, remain largely unexplored. Moreover, some seed-predators seem to have co-evolved with the trees they feed on and anticipate (summer) reproduction, a still poorly understood and controversial response. Therefore, we propose a multi-disciplinary research project to demonstrate that anticipatory reproduction to synchronise population growth with the resource pulse is the result of co-evolution of seed predators with the masting strategy of the trees. If indeed a result of natural selection, the mechanism should occur in different habitats.

The general aim of this IEF project is to explore behavioural mechanisms and phenotypic characteristics that allow squirrels (study species) to anticipate reproduction and start reproductive investment in a period of low availability of high-energy food resources.

The major objectives are: (1) continued monitoring of the producer-consumer dynamics in red squirrels to obtain 11-13 year time-series; (2) focus on the role of individual condition and how it interacts with parasitism rates and individual genetic quality; and (3) explore the role of dispersal in local population dynamics, in different habitats covering an isolation gradient, using a combination of Capture-Mark-Recapture and genetic markers.

The principal role of the post-doc fellow is objective 2. We believe this is a highly innovative aspect of the entire study, since up to date, the majority of studies in population and behavioural ecology have concentrated on one or a few populations of a species, and rarely behavioural studies are combined with demographic ones to explore the mechanisms that drive the dynamics of populations. Even when the role of individual variation in population dynamics is investigated, there are few studies that combine different disciplines such as capture-mark-recapture, genetics, and parasite studies. For example, we found no studies on vertebrates that combined genetic measures of an individual’s condition (e.g. heterozygosity measured by microsatellites), parasite intensity, morphological phenotypic measures of condition and fitness parameters.

Any post-doc interested in developing such a research project is invited to contact me:

Lucas Wauters, PI ASPER project

The ASPER project publications

  • BERTOLINO S, WAUTERS LA, DE BRUYN L, CANESTRI-TROTTI G (2003) Prevalence of coccidia parasites (Protozoa) in red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris): effects of host phenotype and environmental factors. Oecologia 137: 286-295.
  • WAUTERS LA, ZANINETTI M, TOSI G, BERTOLINO S (2004) Is coat-clour polymorphism in Eurasian red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris L.) adaptive? Mammalia 68(1): 37-48.
  • BERTOLINO S, VIZZINI A, WAUTERS LA, TOSI G (2004) Consumption of hypogeous and epigeous fungi by the red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) in subalpine conifer forests. Forest Ecology and Management 202: 227-233.
  • TRIZIO I, CRESTANELLO B, GALBUSERA P, WAUTERS LA, TOSI G, MATTHYSEN E, HAUFFE HC (2005) Geographical distance and physical barriers shape the genetic structure of Eurasian red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) in the Italian Alps. Molecular Ecology 14: 469-481.
  • WAUTERS LA, BERTOLINO S, ADAMO M, VAN DONGEN S, TOSI G (2005) Food shortage disrupts social organization: the case of red squirrels in conifer forests. Evolutionary Ecology 19: 375-404.
  • TATTONI C, PREATONI DG, LURZ PWW, RUSHTON SP, TOSI G, BERTOLINO S, MARTINOLI A, WAUTERS LA (2006) Modelling the expansion of a grey squirrel population: implications for squirrel control. Biological Invasions 8: 1605-1619 (doi:10.1007/s10530-005-3503-z).
  • MOLINARI A, WAUTERS LA, AIROLDI G, CERINOTTI F, MARTINOLI A, TOSI G (2006) Cone selection by Eurasian red squirrels in mixed conifer forests in the Italian Alps. Acta Oecologica 30: 1-10 (doi:10.1016/j.actao.2005.11.004).
  • WAUTERS, LA, PREATONI DG, MOLINARI A, TOSI G (2007) Radio-tracking squirrels: performance of home range density and linkage estimators with small range and sample size. Ecological Modelling 202: 333-344 (doi:10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2006.11.001).
  • WAUTERS LA, VERMEULEN M, VAN DONGEN S, BERTOLINO S, MOLINARI A, TOSI G, MATTHYSEN E (2007) Effects of spatio-temporal variation in food supply on red squirrel Sciurus vulgaris body size and body mass and its consequences for some fitness components. Ecography 30: 51-65.
  • DI PIERRO E, MOLINARI A, TOSI G, WAUTERS LA (2008) Exclusive core areas and intrasexual territoriality in Eurasian red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) revealed by incremental cluster polygon analysis. Ecological Research 23: 529-542 (doi: 10.1007/s11284-007-0401-0).
  • WAUTERS LA, GITHIRU M, BERTOLINO S, MOLINARI A, TOSI G, LENS L (2008) Demography of alpine red squirrel populations in relation to fluctuations in seed crop size. Ecography 31: 104-114 (doi: 10:1111/j.2007.0906-7590.05251.x).
  • MARI V, MARTINI S, ROMEO C, MOLINARI A, MARTINOLI A, TOSI G, WAUTERS LA (2008) Record litter size in the Eurasian red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris). Hystrix It. J. Mamm. 19: 61-65.
  • KVÁC M, HOFMANNOVÁ L, BERTOLINO S, WAUTERS L, MODRÝ D (2008) Natural infection with two genotypes of Cryptosporidium in red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) in Italy. Folia Parasitologica 55: 95-99.
  • SALMASO F, MOLINARI A, DI PIERRO E, GHISLA A, MARTINOLI A, PREATONI D, SERINO G, TOSI G, BERTOLINO S, WAUTERS LA (2009) Estimating and comparing food availability for tree-seed predators in typical pulsed-resource systems: alpine conifer forests. Plant Biosystems 143: xx-xx (in press).
  • BERTOLINO S, WAUTERS LA, PIZZUL A, MOLINARI A, LURZ PWW, TOSI G (2009) A general approach of using hair-tubes to monitor the European red squirrel: A method applicable at regional and national scales. Mammalian Biology 74: 210-219 (doi:10.1016/j.mambio.2009.02.003).

Comments are closed.