Putting Family First: Professor Jane Waterman’s Study of the ‘Uber Social’ Cape Ground Squirrel

Google “Cape Ground Squirrel” and you’ll find plenty of images of adorable rodents munching on nuts or sitting together in cozy family groups. Found throughout South Africa, Botswana and Namibia, they are a desert-adapted species found in arid areas. They are undeniably adorable creatures, but for Biological Sciences Professor Jane Waterman, their true appeal lies in their highly social nature. For a researcher that wants to know ‘why are animals social?’, the family-oriented Cape provides a compelling subject, especially when most squirrel species tend to come together only to mate.

“My question is: ‘Why are so many animals social?’ Because being social isn’t always good. Think about it: When you hang out with individuals of your same species, you want to eat the same things, you chase the same babes, and you’re susceptible to the same cooties they are; their diseases, their parasites. So, there are a lot of things that really bite about being social.”

That Waterman expresses herself in such an informal manner isn’t to say that she doesn’t take her research seriously. Quite the opposite. Speaking to this seasoned researcher, you sense that her passion is all-consuming; that using more formal, clinical language is nearly impossible at times, given her enthusiasm for her subjects.

It’s a passion that Waterman comes by naturally. Her mother says she decided to be a biologist at the age of three. By the time she was five, Waterman had determined to be a zoologist, doing her first research project in elementary school.

“I made a joke that I wanted to study the sex life of the Arctic “gopher” (really a ground squirrel), thinking that there wasn’t such an animal because of permafrost. I was wrong (the Arctic ground lives across the north). But I ended up studying the sex life of the African “gopher” (the Cape ground squirrel). I always wanted to go to Africa, and I eventually succeeded.”

First, Waterman earned her BSc (Hons) in Zoology from the University of Guelph (’81), her MSc in Zoology from the University of Alberta (’85) and her PhD in Zoology from the University of Minnesota (’94). Throughout her studies, her interest in the principles of natural selection and animal sociality kept coming up.

“If you look out in the natural world, most organisms, most animals are not social. They’re solitary. The only time they get social is to mate, or when they’ve got offspring. So, from an evolutionary perspective, as an evolutionary biologist, (because that’s what somebody studying animal behavior really is) many of the traits you’re studying are behavioural. I think that’s so cool. You know why? Because I’m interested in natural selection. Natural selection is differential reproduction and survival. What does that mean? It means some do better than others, in terms of having babies and surviving. Survival is only important as long as it helps you get more babies out there. When you study behaviour, you’re looking natural selection right in the face, you’re looking at: ‘These behaviours? They didn’t do well. These ones did. They left babies.’ That’s so cool.”

Since 2002, Waterman has conducted her research on the Cape Ground squirrel at a wildlife reserve in central South Africa. She’s reluctant to reveal its’ exact location, wary of alerting potential thieves to her teams’ whereabouts. It’s a sad fact that the research station where Waterman and her students live during their time overseas was the victim of theft just last year (although they only got the microwave and dishes).

Despite such setbacks, Waterman is clearly in love with the site she has chosen for the study of her chosen species. She calls it “a gem”, with herds of wildebeests and other wild animals roaming the fields. Ironically, the area bears a strong resemblance to Manitoba’s agricultural landscape. Waterman says that her Prairie-bred students tend to feel quite at home with the expansive fields of grain that are found throughout this area of South Africa.

Given the similarity of the landscapes, the question arises: why not stay in Canada and study squirrels here? What is it about the Cape Ground squirrel that makes it so compelling? Waterman points again to the extremely social nature of the Cape.

“They’re uber social. They live together in family groups. When the daughters are born into the group, that’s where they’re going to live: with their moms and their aunts. In most mammals, what happens is the boys, when they get to be mature, they leave. They go off to sow their wild oats, off somewhere else. But not with the Cape ground squirrels; at least not for the first one to five years. They stay at home. About 60% of our males, when they get to be mature, stay at home with mom and aunts and sisters and cousins. Sleep in the basement. Play video games.

“We’re looking at ‘why are females social?’ and we used to ask ‘why don’t males leave?’ Now we say ‘why do they ever leave?’ Because they’ve got it good. They can get up, and if there’s a female in heat in some other group, they’ll go off and chase the female next door and then come home and mom will clean all the parasites off them. They can hang out with their sisters and aunts, who also watch for predators. It’s a good life.

“But, what we have found is that when there are babies born in the group, these guys are what are called cooperative breeders, where they’ll look after each other’s kids. They babysit, or they watch for predators, or they groom them. But guess who’s doing most of the babysitting? The males that stay at home. We think that’s pretty cool.”

Waterman’s research hasn’t only focused on small mammals. In fact, she spent her first post-doc studying play behaviour in groups of one of Mother Nature’s largest denizens: The polar bear.

For the past decade or so, she’s been part of scientific initiative International Student-Led Arctic Monitoring and Research (ISAMR). According to its’ website, ISAMR is:

“… a coalition of students, teachers, and professional researchers who have been collaborating since 2007 on a projected 30-year study of the permafrost and sea ice in the subarctic climate through the monitoring of vegetation and polar bear populations. Current partners consist of private and public schools, including The Park School of Baltimore, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, and Kelvin High School. In addition, students from the Churchill Junior Canadian Rangers play a prominent role in both the cultural and scientific aspects of the permafrost and polar bear research.”

Each November, Waterman takes high school students from Winnipeg, Baltimore and Churchill to help her study polar bears along the shores of Hudson’s Bay. Using image analysis, they identify the bears, examining their body condition and whisker prints. Waterman’s lab developed the non-invasive Whiskerprint software used to identify the bears based only on their whisker spots, which are analogous to human fingerprints. According to the concept of fluctuating symmetry, the more stress the bears experience during development, the more asymmetric their whisker prints.

Photo credit: Jane Waterman.

“We compared the symmetry of bears and their whisker prints from 2003 through 2005 with 2013 through 2015. We found they’re far more asymmetric now than they were 10 years before. That suggests that during development – in utero, or lactation, early development – that their mothers probably don’t have the resources and they’re under more stress. And that research was done with high school kids. They have presented at a number of national meeting; they won a best poster award from the Wildlife Society. And they’re high school kids!”

Between her study of polar bears and squirrels, Waterman seems to have the best of both worlds. From amongst her group of ISAMR students have come some amazing candidates for her Cape Ground squirrel studies.

“My student who just came back last week from Africa came out of ISAMR. Last year, one of the students that went over with me also came out of this program. I’ve got a new one coming this fall. She’s awesome.”

Waterman’s Honours student, Lauren LaFléche spent the summer in South Africa looking at the question of why some Cape males become caregivers, while others disperse soon after they mature. It appears that those males who do remain with the family group may have a better survival rate than those who leave.

“It’s just hard to tell, because if a male leaves [the group], is it because he’s left and gone off, or is he dead? We don’t know. It’s really hard to answer some of these questions. What we’re hoping to get at are the males that stay behind – we do know that they’re in better body condition than males that are running around – But then maybe those guys take the cost of better body conditioning because they’re having so many babies. We don’t know yet. There’s a lot left to figure out.”

When asked what she feels is her greatest accomplishment to date, Waterman pauses, seemingly at a loss for words. In a career spanning more than three decades, it’s not easy to choose just one thing.

“I think that the research that I’ve done on the squirrels, I’m pretty proud of it. I think that it’s been (and still is) a long road, but I think that a measure of success in research is if you generate more questions that you started with, and we have been generating lots of questions. We don’t have the answers. They’re a long-lived species. It takes a while to get those answers. The same with the polar bear work. I like involving people at lots of different levels: high school, undergrad, grad. We presented our polar bear research when the Minister of Science was in town. At our display I had high school, undergrad and grad students from my lab all talking about the research, and I thought: ‘That’s pretty cool.’”

By Jo Davies

Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.