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Got an App for That?

Using an iPhone for Flying Squirrel Research

By Jennifer Meschinelli ’98

Here’s a new use for an iPhone: researching the nesting patterns of squirrels.

That’s what two SUNY Plattsburgh students did this spring. The two — Vaclav "Alex" Sotola ’12 and Jason Leewe — wanted to see if man-made nesting boxes would help squirrels rebuild their population in an area that had been disturbed, say, by logging. So they installed boxes in the wilderness that is part of the W.H. Miner Agricultural Institute.

Their question: “Can a disturbed site be repopulated?”

Video: Flying squirrels nesting footage from Alex Sotola and Jason Leewe.

To check the boxes, Sotola, an ecology major, and Leewe, a biology and business administration major who is minoring in chemistry, used an iPhone attached to the end of a painter's pole and set it to take video for each nest box.

Using the phone was a less intrusive and much safer way to check each nest box, Sotola said.

But that’s not how the two originally made their observations.


At first, they carried a ladder through the woods and climbed it to check each box. This became cumbersome and dangerous — especially when a squirrel jumped on Sotola's chest while he was on the ladder.

“I was surprised and scared at the same time,” he said.

And, when the squirrel climbed from his chest to his shoulder, then flew away — that’s right, flew away — Sotola got another surprise: The box was occupied by flying squirrels.

“People don't realize they are around here because they are nocturnal,” Sotola said. “They are more common than we think. We knew there were some in the area, but we were not sure where.”

In fact, all but one of the boxes was occupied by flying squirrels.

The Results

The iPhone visits a success, their research seems to indicate that nesting boxes can be useful for managing the squirrel population in disturbed sites. The boxes give the squirrels a sturdier home and protect them from predators and weather, according to Sotola. With that protection, they can repopulate faster.

Since red and grey squirrels don’t nest during the day, Sotola and Leewe saw very few of them. As a result, the two would like to see the study run again with boxes that are checked at night.

Meanwhile, Sotola may have graduated this past May, but his work on the project continues. The pair and their faculty adviser — Assistant Professor of Earth and Environmental Science Danielle Garneau — are submitting an article to a professional journal.


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