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Multi-faceted research on chipmunks enhances NMSU public education program

More than just a cute and cuddly critter, the Oscura Mountain chipmunk is providing New Mexico State University Fish and Wildlife researchers with vital habitat information on an entirely unique kind of animal.


chipmunk
The Organ Mountain chipmunk can easily be spotted during a day hike through the Aguirre Springs trail and campground. It is common to catch them stockpiling seeds and nuts for their winter hibernation. (NMSU photo provided by Jennifer Frey)

Chipmunks are found in coniferous forest habitats. In the arid environments of southern New Mexico, these forests only occur along the cool, high slopes of mountaintops. Each of the larger mountain ranges has its own unique kind of chipmunk, the Organ Mountain chipmunk found adjacent to Las Cruces and the Oscura Mountain chipmunk, which occurs solely in the mountains at the north end of White Sands Missile Range.

“Southern New Mexico is a very interesting place for chipmunks,” said Jennifer Frey, an associate professor in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology at NMSU. “We have at least six different kinds of chipmunks here and most of them don’t occur anywhere else on the planet.”

The chipmunks were able to reach the mountains of southern New Mexico during the Ice Age era when the climate was cooler and the conifer trees grew at lower elevations. The chipmunks are now trapped on their particular mountaintop islands of forest.

Developing a means of observing the chipmunks and their behavior, Frey and her team of graduate researchers are using very sophisticated remote cameras to help monitor the chipmunks. The cameras, similar to the ones hunters use to track game, are fastened to an apparatus baited with peanut butter in PVC tubing. This method draws animals to the camera, and a photo is taken as the animals approach the bait.

“Gray fox, deer, black bears, an array of birds, rats and mice have all been captured in the photos also, allowing us to learn about the wildlife in general,” Frey said.

The remote cameras will allow the researchers to monitor the chipmunks to ensure the populations remain healthy.

The habitats where these chipmunks occur is often remote and rugged. Because of this, it has been difficult for researchers to study the chipmunks living on these mountaintop islands of forest.

“We don’t know a lot about them yet,” Frey said. “One of the goals of my research is to understand where they occur and the kinds of habitats they need in order to survive.”

This particular study with graduate researcher Ian Perkins-Taylor began in January and will continue for two years, though Frey has been studying local populations of chipmunks for more than 10 years. Researchers will learn a wide range of population-based data regarding the chipmunks.


“We want to be able to provide information on the certain wildlife people can expect to see and have more enjoyment when they visit the areas.”

Hikers, wildlife enthusiasts and families camping in the Organ Mountains and other high mountains in southern New Mexico can expect to see chipmunks active during the day in the spring, summer and fall months, as they are a diurnal mammal, unlike many of the other wildlife populations of the Southwest. The chipmunks feed on nuts, seeds, insects and plant roots and live approximately 2-3 years.

Aiding in conservation, another goal of Frey’s is to add the chipmunk to her public education program. As the curator for the NMSU Wildlife Museum, she intends to teach children and adults throughout the Las Cruces community about the type of wildlife found in the nearby region.

For more information on the public education program, visit http://web.nmsu.edu/~jfrey/wildlifemuseum.html.