Why are grey Squirrels dominating Red Squirrels in the UK?

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In a groundbreaking study, scientists have delved into the intriguing realm of gut bacteria diversity, uncovering significant disparities between grey squirrels and their red counterparts. These findings offer profound insights into the mechanisms driving the competitive edge of grey squirrels, particularly in their ongoing dominance over red squirrels in the UK.

Recently published in the esteemed Journal of Medical Microbiology, the research, spearheaded by Chris Nichols, Conservation Evidence Manager at the Woodland Trust, sheds light on the intricate interplay between gut microbiota and ecological competition among squirrel species.

Grey squirrels, originating as invasive species from North America and introduced to Great Britain and Ireland between 1876 and 1929, have since established themselves as formidable competitors to native red squirrels. Their remarkable ability to outcompete and proliferate is attributed to various factors, notably their adeptness at exploiting a diverse array of food sources, including the bark of native broadleaved trees—a behavior that, until now, remained largely enigmatic.

To unravel the secrets behind grey squirrel supremacy, a collaborative effort involving researchers from the Woodland Trust, University of Surrey, University of Bangor, and the Animal and Plant Health Agency was undertaken. The focus of their investigation centered on analyzing the gut microbiota of both grey and red squirrels, recognizing that microbial diversity and abundance serve as indicators of diet, health, and immunity.

By sampling bacterial DNA from the gut contents of these squirrel species and subjecting it to DNA sequencing, researchers discerned notable distinctions in the composition of gut bacteria between the two groups. Specifically, grey squirrels exhibited a significantly broader range of microbiota diversity within their guts—an observation that suggests heightened overall health and immunity compared to their red counterparts. This enhanced diversity may also reflect the grey squirrel’s propensity for a more varied diet, providing crucial insights into their capacity to access a wider spectrum of resources.

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Furthermore, the presence of oxalate-degrading bacteria in the gut of grey squirrels signifies their ability to digest calcium from tree bark, offering a potential explanation for their destructive bark-stripping behavior—a phenomenon that has long puzzled researchers.

While the scope of this research was limited to UK red squirrels, scientists are optimistic about the implications for broader understanding. Future endeavors may encompass mapping the gut microbiota of red squirrel populations across Europe, offering deeper insights into the ecological dynamics at play and facilitating more comprehensive conservation strategies.

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