How Red Squirrels Could Be Changing Western Forests

Jun 23, 2014

Red squirrels live in lodgepole pine forests and eat lodgepole seeds.
Credit David Maher / Flickr Creative Commons

The patchy recovery of lodgepole pine trees after the 1988 Yellowstone National Park fire could be due in part to the effects of squirrels.

Research from the University of Wyoming finds red squirrels could be having an impact on how lodgepole pine forests evolve.

According to the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, red squirrels are eating seeds from serotinous, or closed, pinecones. In areas prone to wildfire, lodgepole pines make more of those closed pinecones, which open in intense heat, in order to reproduce after a fire.

Researchers conclude red squirrels are eating those seeds in the closed pinecones, counteracting the tree’s evolutionary response to fire, and creating pockets of forest that are more dense than others.

Researchers say understanding how many squirrels live in an area could help forest managers know if they should expect a dense or sparse forest after a fire.

Find Emilie Ritter Saunders on Twitter @emiliersaunders

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