Red squirrels decline in abundance in the boreal forests of Finland and NW Russia

Published online: 
26 December 2017

Turkia T., Selonen V., Danilov P., Kurhinen J., Ovaskainen O., Rintala J., Brommer J. E.

Recent global warming and other anthropogenic changes have caused well-documented range shifts and population declines in many species over a large spatial extent. Most large-scale studies focus on birds, large mammals, and threatened species, whereas large-scale population trends of small to medium-sized mammals and species that are currently of least concern remain poorly studied. Large-scale studies are needed because on a smaller scale, important patterns may be masked by local variation and stochastic processes. Here, we utilized snow track census data from Finland and NW Russia to estimate population growth rates of the Eurasian red squirrel Sciurus vulgaris for a period of 17 yr in an area of over 1 000 000 km2. We also studied the effects of changes in summer and winter temperatures, winter precipitation, predator abundance, and canopy cover on estimated red squirrel population growth rates. Our results suggest that red squirrel populations have declined in most parts of the study area, the only remarkable exception being SW Russia. These results are in concordance with previous studies suggesting that species that are still common and of least concern may be declining. However, our findings are in contrast to the common pattern of northern populations of boreal species increasing due to global warming. The estimated population growth rates are in synchrony over vast areas, suggesting that the underlying reasons also operate on a large scale. We indeed find that the population growth rate was lower in regions where winters warmed faster during the study period, suggesting that changes in the environment (or biotic changes associated with it) are linked with the decline of red squirrels.