Nutty research collects serious data
By Liz Shelton
Photos by Liz Shelton
Annie Spikes (left) and Emmett Albertson show off the decoy they use to lure blue jays to take acorns containing a tracking chip.
A lot of very detailed work can be ruined by one little masked bandit who can shimmy up a post. A raccoon or squirrel can wreak havoc on Nate Lichti's study that uses a special acorn-feeding platform.
The special acorns are meant for blue jays and are filled with a tiny telemetric chip. A single crunch from a little masked bandit or bushy-tailed con artist can destroy the painstaking work of emptying the acorn shell and refilling it with the tracking chip.
"It takes about 20 minutes to hollow the acorn out, set up the chip, and seal it off correctly," said Emmett Albertson, a senior wildlife major from Fowler, Ind. "The acorn has to feel real to the bird when they pick it up, so they don't just drop it right away."
The work of collecting acorns, putting in trasmitters, and tracking the nuts after they have been snatched can be time consuming and tedious. But it is important to the research conducted by Lichti, a graduate student.
"It can get boring sometimes filling the acorns with the transmitters," said Albertson. "The fun part is collecting the acorns to be filled - you take a giant slingshot and shoot it into the tree and shake the branches until you get enough acorns to use."
A determined squirrel or raccoon can empty the entire feeder of acorns in a single night. The acorns are intended for blue jays, who become accustomed to eating out the feeders, and then take the acorns with the chips away and eat them immediately or store them to eat later.
Lichti's research focuses on the acorns the blue jays save for later. Sometimes, the bird doesn't come back for the nut, so the acorn has the chance to sprout and become an oak tree. By tracking the location of the hidden acorns, Lichti and the students working with him can learn how new oak trees grow in the forest.
Because they produce acorns, oak trees are a very important part of the forest ecosystem. Forty-two animal species rely on acorns as a major food source including blue jays, the troublemaking squirrels and raccoons, and many game species like wild turkeys. So, the decline in oak trees in Indiana's forests can have a major impact on the way many animals live.
"Oak trees don't produce the same amoung of acorns from year to year, so they are an inconsistent food source," said Lichti. "More trees equals more food for animals that rely on them."
Lichti's work also could help other researchers understand how other tree species reproduce. One of these is the American chestnut. The American chestnut cast its shade over American history. The trees could reach 150 feet tall and measure 10 feet around the trunk. About 80 years ago a disease caused the American chestnut to all but disappear from its native range, which included southern Indiana.
Researchers estimate that before the trees died off, American chestnuts made up as much as 25 percent of the forests in their native range. "We don't even know what the nation's forests looked like before the chestnut blight occurred," said Lichti. "We can't imagine how the animal population might look with chestnuts as a food source."
The chestnuts were a very important food source: wild and domestic animals, and humans ate the nuts. Chestnut lumber also was prized for its rot-resistant qualities.
Researchers have been working for years to create a blight-resistant strain of the tree by crossing some of the few remaining American chestnut trees with a Chinese species that has resistance to the blight. Another Purdue researcher hopes to be part of the large-scale reintroduction of the chestnut to our nation's forests over the next 10 years.
Ultimately, the work Lichti and his team are doing with acorns could be a part of reshaping the way our forests look and what animals live in them.