SEARCH

SEARCH BY CITATION

Species with expanding ranges provide unique opportunities to examine environmentally induced adaptations in ecological traits and anatomical characteristics. Since the late 1800s, the North American red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) has expanded its range into the central hardwoods of the United States in conjunction with increasing agricultural fragmentation. We examined whether red squirrels from the central hardwoods (west-central Indiana, USA) displayed differences in foraging behaviors and morphology relative to red squirrels from conifer-dominated environments (upper peninsula of Michigan, USA), a biome in which red squirrels evolved. Specifically, we measured rates of energy extraction, variation in cranial morphology, and diet preference between red squirrels from both regions. In addition, we compared foraging behaviors of red squirrels from the central hardwoods to those of a competitor that coevolved with nut-producing trees, the gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). Red squirrels from Indiana and Michigan differed significantly in the efficiency with which they used food items, with individuals from each region extracting calories at a more rapid rate for items that were common in their region. The enhanced efficiency of southern red squirrels feeding on black walnuts (Juglans nigra) was correlated with geographic differences in cranial morphology; skulls of southern squirrels were larger, with longer jaws and higher metrics associated with greater mandibular force than northern squirrels. Contrary to our expectations, red squirrels from Indiana and Michigan did not differ qualitatively in preferences for food items, suggesting that diet choice may be governed by perishability of food items rather than by rates of energy extraction. Gray squirrels were more efficient than Indiana red squirrels in using all food items, and differed only slightly from red squirrels with regard to preference for food items. Measures of efficiency of resource use, after accounting for species-specific metabolic requirements, suggest that red squirrels are unlikely to compensate ecologically for declining gray squirrel populations in fragmented portions of the central hardwoods, with potentially adverse effects for forest regeneration and succession. Our results demonstrate that invading species can display significant flexibility in adapting to new environments, but they may not be flexible enough to exploit resources in a manner comparable to native species.