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Grad student works to preserve endangered flying squirrels


   

Corinne Diggins Corinne Diggins sets traps in a variety of spruce and hardwood locations to account for the northern flying squirrel’s foraging and denning habits in the central Appalachians. © Patrick Cavan Brown for The Nature Conservancy

Aug. 15, 2014 – Realizing that the tiny northern flying squirrel depends upon red spruce trees, scientists from government agencies and nonprofit organizations have been protecting and restoring landscapes that support the once-plentiful tree and releasing suppressed trees as well as planting seedlings in the central Appalachian Mountains.

One of the scientists is doctoral student Corinne “Cordie” Diggins, who is featured with others in the April 2014 issue of Nature Conservancy Magazine in an article about the ecological restoration of red spruce in West Virginia. Diggins studies two regional subspecies of northern flying squirrel — the Carolina northern flying squirrel, which is federally endangered, and the Virginia northern flying squirrel, which was removed from the endangered list in 2013.

She and her advisor, Associate Professor W. Mark Ford, leader of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Virginia Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, along with biologists from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the U.S. Forest Service, have been tracking radio-collared northern flying squirrels in the central and southern Appalachian Mountains to determine home range and habitat preferences.

In other words, Diggins has been sitting in the dark, tracking signals from radio collars to see where the squirrels forage, and digging under trees to determine characteristics of the microenvironments there and what the squirrels eat.

“Research in the central and southern Appalachians has highlighted the connection between northern flying squirrels and high-elevation spruce forests,” said Diggins. In one study, Diggins and Ford found that a small sample of Carolina northern flying squirrels preferred to forage and den in taller, mature trees over 65 feet high. “They favor a subterranean fungus that grows at the roots of red spruce and shares nutrients with that tree,” said Diggins. Such findings enable the necessary forestry management decisions.

Diggins will continue to study microhabitats to determine characteristics important to flying squirrels. She is now conducting field surveys for the ultrasonic sounds emitted by the squirrels using acoustic detection technology. “The technology lets me detect them without having to capture them. We can even distinguish between the northern flying squirrel and the more common southern flying squirrel,” she said.


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