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Queen’s research highlights significance of native predators to naturally restore ecosystems

The research reveals how a native predator, the pine marten, is helping to conserve the UK and Ireland’s only native squirrel, the red squirrel.

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A new research study led by Queen’s University Belfast highlights the crucial role that recovering native predators can play in conserving the natural ecosystem.

Following introductions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the invasive grey squirrel had replaced the native red squirrel across much of its former range in the UK and Ireland.  The pine marten, a recovering predator in the UK and Ireland are naturally controlling introduced grey squirrels, while simultaneously helping to secure the survival of native red squirrel populations.

Until now, little was known about how the pine marten which predates both grey and red squirrels was able to negatively affect invasive grey squirrel populations while positively affecting their native cousins.

Through the exposure of red and grey squirrels to pine marten scent at twenty feeding sites across Northern Ireland, the researchers used cameras to record how the different squirrel species responded to their shared predator, the pine marten.

They found that native red squirrels showed clear behavioural responses to pine marten scent, while grey squirrels did not. Red squirrels visited the feeders less often and increased their vigilance when pine marten scent was applied whilst grey squirrels did not change their behaviour. This is likely a response to red squirrels sharing a landscape with pine marten over a long-period of time, with grey squirrels being relative newcomers to the threat that the pine marten poses.

Grey squirrels showed a lack of behavioural response to the cues of the pine marten, making them highly vulnerable to predation. This assists in explaining the higher occurrence of grey squirrels than red squirrels in the diet of the pine marten, and why grey squirrel populations are declining wherever the pine marten recovers. If invasive species lack behavioural responses to recovering native predators with whom they do not share evolutionary history; the ongoing predator recovery in Europe could have immense potential to restore and regulate ecosystems our fractured ecosystems.

The study, funded through an online public appeal and published in the Royal Society Open Science, highlights the importance of conserving and supporting our recovering native predator populations in Europe. 

Joshua Twining, lead-author and PhD student at School of Biological Sciences, Queen’s University, Belfast, said: “Grey squirrels, introduced to the UK from North America, have only shared the landscape for a mere blink of the eye on an evolutionary timescale, and thus currently appear to be naïve to the threat of predation by this native predator.”

Mr Twining added: “In a modern world that is daunted by environmental crisis and ecological collapse, it is more important than ever to recognise the potential of nature, its resilience and ability to provide solutions to our mistakes. This is especially pertinent in the UK and Ireland where we currently live in a highly managed, unnaturally predator free world. Historic human activities have led to the loss of predators at the top of the food chain including the wolf and the lynx. The UK government currently spends £1.7 billion a year to control invasive species in a bid to balance the ecosystem. More research is required, but our initial findings add to the evidence suggesting that an alternative measure could involve restoring our native predators to naturally rebalance the ecosystem.”

Dr David Tosh, co-author and Research Coordinator at National Museums NI, said: “The benefits of native predator populations are slowly being realised in Britain and Ireland. While this study began with a focus on identifying what was behind the observed relationship between squirrels and pine martens, it has shown us the potential benefits predators may have in rebalancing the ecosystem. We believe this discovery will demonstrate to the wider public the benefits that native predators can bring to our countryside.”