How the White Squirrel Institute was started.

The White Squirrel Institute was started by Robert Glesner in 1997. He was an Associate Professor of Biology, Emeritus, Brevard College. B.S., University of Maryland (Zoology); M.S. (Zoology) and Ph.D. (Biological Sciences), University of Michigan.

” I first heard of Brevard while an undergraduate at the University of Maryland. Southern Appalachia is salamander heaven and I spent my summers in Western North Carolina trail blazing and collecting specimens for a zoology professor. I was hooked. I gave up my prior interest in medicine and psychology and became an ecologist. Even though my research eventually became more theoretical, to this day I cannot resist turning logs and rocks in Pisgah National Forest. The difference is that today I put back everything I catch.

 

I came to Brevard directly from graduate school at the University of Michigan. My research then dealt with (1) the regional stability of locally unstable predator/prey interactions and (2) the evolution and maintenance of sexual reproduction. During my twenty-six years at Brevard College, I have taught everything from Introductory Biology and Zoology to Ecology and Genetics. Outside the classroom I founded the Commuter Student Association and BC RECYCLES! I also maintained small projects monitoring stream water quality and the salamanders of Moore Cove, Pisgah National Forest.

 

In 1997, with the participation of Brevard College students,  I began a long-term study of Brevard’s white squirrel population, which includes conducting the annual Fall Squirrel Count. Although I have since retired, I continue as Director of the White Squirrel Research Institute under the sponsorship of the Heart of Brevard.   You can contact me at rrglesener@gmail.com   Thanks for your interest (if you could possibly be interested in more about me, click here).

 

Acknowlegments and History of the White Squirrel Research Institute:
In 1997, a group of motivated students entrolled in Bio 299 (Independent/Directed Study).  Prior to that time, I had only collected data on the regional distribution of the white squirrels solicited through the Transylvania Times.  As Brevard College transitioned from a 2 year to a 4 year college,  Jeremy David Benjamin, Melanie Metcalf Carter,  Erica Lynn Paulus, and Kelly Ann Turner decided they wanted to do more than read about biology, they wanted to do biology.  Together we designed and oversaw the completion of the first annual Brevard Fall Squirrel Count.  This involved a considerable effort and commitment on the part of all five of us.   Maps had to be constructed and procedures developed.  Fortunately, John Stencil of Olney Central College in Illinois was willing to share his expertise gleaned from 15 years of organizing a similar count of the albino squirrels in his hometown.  “Roping off” sectors was considerably easier in the flatlands of Illinois than in our mountains.  Following natural terrain, we ended up with a similar sized overall study area but with sectors varing greatly in acreage.  This turned out to be a blessing is disguise, as it allowed us to match the sector size with the physical capability of the volunteer.

 

Bill Suder, a fellow biology faculty member, designed nesting boxes with a hinged front piece to view litters without handling them.  William Zink, Chris Lowe,  and Patrick Scott joined the group to analyse data and construct a web page, as well as particapate in related studies such as nesting box placement, reproductive behavior, and censuses.  Students of BIO 101, 102, and Animal Ecology provided people power.  Jennifer Burgin. a small mammal rehaber extraordinaire, mentored several students including myself on the development and habits of squirrels.

 

The following semester Bill Suder and I proposed the formal creation of the White Squirrel Research Institute.  Although administratively placed under the Division of Environmental Studies, Mathematics and Natural Science, the institute was invisioned to encompass all academic disciplines, providing fodder for senior projects in their areas.  After an initial flurry of excitment, interest died down.  Eventually, the founding students graduated and Bill Suder retired, leaving me as the “Institute.”  With help from Beth Suttles Banks, laboratory coordinator, the Fall Count continued at Brevard College until I retired in Spring 2005.

 

By that time, the White Squirrel Festival had been established by the Heart of Brevard (HOB).  Although the focus of the festival was on music and the local economy, my role as envisioned by Margaret Woodward and Leigh Trapp of the HOB and Phil Davis of Tungsten Branding, was to be, along with Jennifer Burgin, one of the “go to” persons for information about the squirrels themselves.  I tended an information booth and led walking tours on the Brevard College campus.  The latter was not only intended to spotlight a white squirrel which it almost always did but to serve as an extended Q&A period.  The questions asked on these tours form the basis of the FAQ post on the website.  The posters of the information booth became the basis of a self-guided tour displayed during the festival at the Transylvania Heritage Museum. It was more of a virtual tour than an actual one.  I latter combined the two concepts (FAQ and self-guided tour) to create a real Self-Guided tour available at the website.

 

After I retired from the College, Margaret and Leigh realized the importance of continuing the annual count so that we could monitor the critters we were celebrating.  When Margaret and Leigh moved on they were replaced by Madrid Zimmerman and Lynne Warner.  I am particularly grateful for the logistical support, including space on their web server and use of their computers.  Madrid was very effective in recruiting community volunteers many of whom were repeat observers such as Bill and Joanne Carroll, Suzy Biecker, Charlie Almond, Kathleen Lavoie, Beth Suttles Banks, Brevard Middle School Beta Club , 4H Wildlife Trekkers, Brevard High School 4H, and Community in the Schools just to name a few.  Jeanette Austin, Volney Tinsley and especially Barbara Mull Lang significant historical contributions.

 

When I developed a medical condition that prevented me from exposure to UV light and left me too weak to personally participate, Madrid and Lynne stepped up their efforts even more if that is possible.  When Madrid resigned to care for her father in California, and the HOB faced reorganization, the count unintentially (I believe) was assigned a lower priority.  The 2012 count was not complete enough to include in the overall results but after 15 good years, trends can be detected as discussed above in this post.  It is hoped that if the annual squirrel count can not be continued that, perhaps, it can abe completed every five or ten years to see if the prediction that the white variant will be in the majority in approximately a decade comes true.  In the meantime, the Self-Guided tour is available online not just during the annual festival but all year.  Thanks to all of you.”

-Robert Glesner