Southern Fox Squirrel and Eastern Gray Squirrel Interactions in a Fire-maintained Ecosystem


Southern fox squirrels (Sciurus niger niger) have been declining due to habitat fragmentation, cover type conversion, and fire suppression in the Southeast. A decrease in growing season burns has led to hardwood encroachment and forest mesophication that benefit the competing eastern gray squirrels (S. carolinensis). In the southern Coastal Plain and Piedmont of Virginia, these pattern raises the question of whether gray squirrels are competitively excluding southern fox squirrels in these altered landscapes. From October 2019 to October 2020, we conducted continual camera trapping for southern fox squirrels and gray squirrels on the Big Woods/Piney Grove Complex (BWPGC) and at Fort Barfoot (FB) in the Coastal Plain and lower Piedmont of Virginia, respectively. Both sites are among the few areas that still contain large, intact pine savanna and mixed-pine hardwood forests in southeastern Virginia. We used two-species occupancy modeling to investigate occupancy estimates of southern fox squirrels and possible competition with gray squirrels, based on detection histories collected from camera traps on BWPGC and FB. We then conducted informed single-species occupancy modeling to estimate the necessary level-of effort (LOE) required to determine the probable absence of southern fox squirrels at sampling sites in the region. No fox squirrels were observed at FB. Our top, two species occupancy model showed that gray squirrel occupancy increased with increasing time since last burn. However, southern fox squirrel occupancy, in the absence of gray squirrels, decreased with increasing time since last burn. Gray squirrels typically inhabited hardwood-dominant closed canopy areas whereas southern fox squirrels did so at BWPGC only in the absence of gray squirrels. This suggests that southern fox squirrels are selecting areas on BWPGC based on resource needs and possibly competition with gray squirrels. A single-season occupancy model confirmed that southern fox squirrel occupancy decreased with time since the last burn. Our LOE analysis indicated that seven consecutive days of camera trapping without a detection would provide 90% confidence of the subspecies’ absence in areas burned two or more years prior to sampling. Southern fox squirrels may benefit from increased short-rotation burns to maintain or enhance pine-hardwood savannas and pine-hardwood savanna ecotones in southeastern Virginia.