Ferrets, cockroaches, other wild inhabitants of Bio Department

Christine Lee, Life Editor

Walk through around any room in the Biology department on the third floor of Stark Learning Center and one is likely to encounter a critter wandering around in a tank, cage or on its own through a classroom or lab.

Most of these animals are used for scientific research involving undergraduates. Research Associate Andrew Bartlow has been doing research in the plant-animal interactions lab for several years and highlights several research projects the department has undergone that involve small animals.

One project done two years ago involved research on patterns of seed dispersal, focusing on how rodents disperse seeds and how it affects oak forest regeneration that involved grey Squirrels at Kirby Park.

The study looked at the cache recovery behavior of grey squirrels, or grey squirrel behavior around burying acorns in the ground for later use. The question posed was whether grey squirrels have priority over their caches. Bartlow said part of the experiment involved live trapping and marking Eastern Grey Squirrels.

“That’s what I did for a month, just trapped squirrels everyday and marked them, painted them up,” Bartlow said. “We had at least four or five people on that project and that’s what we did for one summer. That was fun.”

Passive integrated transponder tags, small electronic devices implanted into an animal’s skin used to track movement, were placed in acorns and presented to the squirrels and the team observed the squirrels burying the acorns, making sure they were in the ground with the tracking tags.

“We had two types of animals: animals that were left in the park as we monitored the caches and squirrels that were taken to Dr. (Mike) Steele’s house as we monitored the caches,” Bartlow said.

Bartlow explained that the caches of squirrels that stayed in the park had acorns that disappeared after a few days. But the squirrels that were taken out of the park had caches that remained and when the squirrels were released, the cache would go missing.

The team concluded that Eastern Grey Squirrels have priority over their caches with no pilfering.

Bartlow said small mammal trappings of mice, chipmunks and voles are common in the department. The department also monitors animals indirectly by placing seeds and monitoring how the animals in the wild interact with the seeds.

He explained that small animals are useful in research because they show best how species of plants and animals interact.

Students that have had a laboratory with professor of biology Dr. William Terzaghi will no doubt be familiar with the two ferret mascots that frequented the lab or the Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches that inhabit his office.

Terzaghi got Princess Ribonucleic Acid (or Rana) after students working in the lab over the summer asked for a lab mascot. A student noticed a ferret that was up for adoption at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Terzaghi said he had to work with Dean of the College of Science and Engineering Dr. Dale Bruns and biology department chair Dr. Mike Steele to get approval. But by the time approval was granted the ferret at the SPCA had been adopted but Terzaghi was able to get a ferret at a local pet store.

Terzaghi said in order to keep Rana and her predecessor, Prince Deoxyribonucleic Acid (or Dana), he had to sign an agreement with the Animal Care and Use Committee that they would be his pets and would go home with him every night. He would also have to get rabies shots, and the ferrets had to be confined to one part of Stark.

He said most students liked the ferret mascots and was surprised by the number of students who had ferrets and liked the animals.

“About 90 percent positive, 5 percent neutral and 5 percent hated them,” Terzaghi said. “I had quite a few girls over the years that said ‘I miss my ferret, can I pet him?’”

Terzaghi said ferrets have to be trained about not biting and are playful and cat-like, investigating things and socializing with people and other animals on their terms.

“In a Biology department you ought to have living things running around, it’s fun and it’s something to talk about,” Terzaghi said.

Terzaghi originally got a colony of Madagascar hissing cockroaches for what he calls “cockroach death matches” during Pre-Med Day.

“I would have two different varieties of cockroaches and we’d put them both in a container with dry ice and saw which keeled over first,” Terzaghi said. “Then you take them out and do a little cockroach CPR and they come back to life.”

Now in retirement, the cockroaches are used for a different purpose.

“Now I use them to creep out the freshman,” Terzaghi said.