PUBlic Professor Series | Dr. Gail Michener

Love Them, Despise Them, Study Them: Perspectives on an iconic prairie animal

Dr. Gail Michener, Department of Biological Sciences

Named in 1822 to honour arctic explorer and British Naval Officer Sir John Richardson, Richardson’s ground squirrels are expensive exotic pets for some, detested agricultural pests for others, and fascinating research subjects for a few.

Known as “gophers” in common parlance, Richardson’s ground squirrels are depicted in a variety of ways, often anthropomorphically. Gainer the Gopher is the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ partially clothed mascot, and Torrington’s Gopher Hole Museum is entirely devoted to dioramas that use stuffed “gophers” as well-dressed avatars of townsfolk. Yet, many wish to destroy Richardson’s ground squirrels, even holding competitions with prizes for those who submit the most tails.

Searching for a research subject when she came to Canada from Australia, Gail Michener was astounded to discover that, even within the scientific community, nobody could answer the most basic questions about this common prairie rodent  –  when do they mate? How long is pregnancy? How many litters can a female produce in a year? What is their lifespan? Do they form social bonds? A several-year doctoral project to answer those questions grew incrementally into a multi-decade research career that predominantly focusses on kinship, reproduction, and sexual differences in the behavioural ecology of Richardson’s ground squirrels.

Gail Michener’s goal in her PUBlic Professor Series presentation is to answer the questions you never thought to ask about Richardson’s ground squirrels.

Gail Michener obtained her BSc at the University of Adelaide, Australia, and her PhD at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan. She has taught at universities in Africa and the USA, but most of her professional career has been at the University of Lethbridge, during which time she received research awards from the American Society of Mammalogists and the University of Lethbridge, as well as teaching awards from the Animal Behaviour Society and the University of Lethbridge. She has served as President of the Animal Behaviour Society and of the Canadian Council on Animal Care.

Now retired from her position as Professor of Biological Sciences and Board of Governors Research Chair, Gail continues to analyze data from a multi-decade longitudinal study of the behavioural ecology of Richardson’s ground squirrels, colloquially - and incorrectly - known as “gophers”.  She has published more than 50 scholarly articles on life history, demographics, reproductive success, kinship, social and spatial relationships, growth and survival, and burrow architecture.

ICYMI: Watch the video