Student point of view on researching microbes, flying squirrels, and mice around farms in Maine

Five women taking a photo together at a farm.  They are standing a few feet apart from each other, and standing in front of a cow feedlot with two cows eating.

This summer, a collaborative project was launched by the Ishaq Lab, Danielle Levesque, and Pauline Kamath at UMaine Orono and Jason Johnston at UMaine Presque Isle; “Climate Change Effects on Wild Mammal Ranges and Infectious Disease Exposure Risk at Maine Farms.”

Funded by the University of Maine Rural Health and Wellbeing Grand Challenge Grant Program, this project assesses pathogen carriage by mice and flying squirrels on or near farms in several locations in Maine. We live-capture mice and flying squirrels in traps, collect the poop they’ve left in the trap, and conduct a few other health screening tests in the field before releasing them. To maximize the information we collect while minimizing stress and interference to the animals, information is being collected for other projects in the Levesque Lab at the same time. We will be collecting samples for another few weeks, and then working on the samples we collected in the lab over the fall and winter.

One of the major goals of the funding program, and this project, is to engage students in research. After a few months on the project, some of our students describe their role and their experiences so far…


A close-up of a deer mouse sitting in a live capture trap in the forest.  In the background is one of the researchers kneeling on the ground.

Marissa Edwards

Undergraduate in Biology

Levesque Lab

Hi! My name is Marissa Edwards and I am an undergraduate research assistant with Danielle Levesque. This summer, my role has been to set traps, handle small mammals, and collect fecal and tissue samples from deer mice.

A pine marten sitting in a live capture trap in a forest.

One of the skills I’ve learned this summer is how to properly ear tag a mouse. To catch mice, we set traps across UMaine’s campus as well as other parts of Maine, including Moosehead Lake, Flagstaff Lake, and Presque Isle.

During our trip to Moosehead Lake, I saw a marten for the first time (it was in one of our traps). I did not know martens existed and initially thought it was a fisher cat. It was both a cool and terrifying experience!


Northern flying squirrel sitting on a net with a forest in the background.

Elise Gudde

Master’s Student of Ecology and Environmental Sciences

Levesque Lab

Hello, my name is Elise Gudde, and I am currently a master’s student at the University of Maine in the Ecology and Environmental Sciences program. I work in Dr. Danielle Levesque’s lab studying small mammal physiology in Maine.

Northern flying squirrel sitting on a net with a forest in the background.

This summer, as a part of the squirrel project, I work to trap small mammal species in Maine, such as white footed mice, deer mice, and flying squirrels in order to determine which species have shifted their range distributions as a result of climate change. Being a part of the research team, this summer has brought me all over Maine! I have been able to travel to Orono, Greenville, New Portland, and Aroostook County to study many interesting mammals. I even got to handle an Eastern chipmunk for the first time! As a member of the animal-handling side of the research team, I also collect fecal and tissue samples from the animals. These samples are then handed off for other members of the team to research in the lab!


Rebecca French wearing a white laboratory coat, a fabric face mask, and beige latex gloves while using a yellow plastic loop tool to spread bactrial cultures on fresh agar media plates to look for growth.  Rebecca is sitting at a biosafety cabinet with the glass window slide down between her and what she is working on.  Assorted scientific materials can be seen in the background.

Rebecca French

Undergraduate in Animal and Veterinary Sciences

Ishaq Lab

In the beginning of this project, I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I began researching flying squirrels and mice. I came into it with almost no in-person lab experience, so I had a lot to learn.

So far, I have been focusing on making media on petri dishes for culturing bacterial growth and after plating fecal bacteria on said plates; discerning what that growth can be identified as.

We are using media with specific nutrients, and colored dyes, and certain bacteria we are interested in will be able to survive or produce a color change. I have also been performing fecal flotations and viewing possible eggs and parasites under a microscope. What I’ve found most fun about this project is putting into practice what I have learned only in a classroom setting thus far. It is also very satisfying to be a part of every step of the project; from catching mice, to making media, to using that media to yield results and then to be able to have a large cache of information to turn it all into a full fledged project.


Joe Beale, posing for a photo in an open office space.

Joe Beale

Undergraduate in Animal and Veterinary Sciences

Kamath Lab

Hello! My name is Joseph Beale, and I am an undergraduate at the University of Maine working on the squirrel project as a part of my capstone requirement for graduation. My primary responsibility in this project is the molecular testing of samples obtained from the field. Primarily I will be working with ear punch samples taken from flying squirrels and field mice. DNA extracts from these field samples will be run via qPCR. The results of this qPCR will tell us if these squirrels are carrying any pathogens. 

The pathogens we will be testing for are those found in Ixodes ticks. The qPCR panel which we will be running the extracted DNA from the ear punches on tests for Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative agent of Lyme disease, Anaplasma phagocytophilum, the causative agent of anaplasmosis, and Babesia microti, the causative agent of Babesiosis. These pathogens and respective diseases discussed are all transmitted through Ixodes ticks. Deer ticks are the most common and famous of the Ixodes genus. The Ixodes genus encapsulates hard-bodied ticks. Along with deer ticks, Ixodes ticks found in Maine include: woodchuck ticks, squirrel ticks, mouse ticks, seabird ticks, and more. Mice and squirrel are ideal hosts for these Ixodes ticks, therefore becoming prime reservoirs for these diseases. In our research, we are interested in determining the prevalence of these diseases in squirrels and mice as these hosts can spread these diseases to humans and other animals in high tick areas. 

qPCR, quantitative polymerase chain reaction, allows for the quantification of amplified DNA in samples.  This will help tell us if these pathogens are present in samples and in what capacity. In qPCR provided DNA strands are added to the reaction. These strands match with the genome of the intended pathogens. If the pathogens are present in our samples, the provided DNA strands will bind to the present pathogen DNA. PCR will then work to manufacture billions of copies of this present pathogen DNA. 

When not working on this project, I also work in the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Diagnostic Research Laboratory as a part of the Tick Lab. In this position I have honed the molecular biology skills that I will in turn use for the squirrel project. 


Yvonne Booker

Undergraduate, Tuskeegee University

Levesque Lab

Microbes and the Mammalian Mystery“, reblogged from the University of Maine REU program.

Hello everyone! My name is Yvonne Booker and I am a rising senior, animal and poultry science major at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama. I am interested in animal health research, with a particular focus in veterinary medicine. I’ve always wanted to be a veterinarian, but as I progressed throughout  college, I became interested in learning more about animal health and how I might help animals on a much larger and impactful scale–which led me to the REU ANEW program. Currently climate change is causing an increase in global temperatures, putting pressure on animals’ ability to interact and survive within their environment. Consequently, scientists are now attempting to understand not just how to prevent climate change, but how these creatures are adapting to this emerging challenge.

My research experience this summer is geared toward addressing this global issue. I am currently working in Dr. Danielle Levesque’s Lab, which aims to study the evolutionary and ecological physiology of mammals in relation to climate. My project involves conducting a literature review of the microbiome of mammals, to learn more about how their microbial community plays a role in how they adapt in a heat-stressed environment.

Our knowledge of vertebrate-microbe interactions derives partly from research on ectotherms. While this research paves the path for a better understanding of how organisms react to temperature changes, fewer studies have focused on how mammals deal with these extreme temperature shifts—specifically, the abrupt surge in climate change. The ability of endotherms to  thermoregulate alters our knowledge of (1) how mammals create heat tolerance against these environmental challenges and (2) how this internal process alters mammals’ adaptability and physiology over time. We suggest that the microbiome plays an essential part in understanding mammals’ heat tolerance and that this microbial community can help researchers further understand the various processes that allow mammals to survive extreme temperatures.

As a student of the REU ANEW program my goal was to go out of my comfort zone and study animals in an applied fashion that would impact animal health on an environmental and ecological scale; and this program was just that! My mentor, Dr. Levesque was wonderful in guiding me through conducting this research, while giving me the independence to create my own voice. The program directors, Dr. Anne Lichtenwalner and Dr. Kristina Cammen, have also  been extremely supportive throughout this entire program equipping students with the tools they need to succeed as researchers. Although research was my primary focus this summer, some of my favorite memories involved building community with the students and the staff. From weekly check-ins on zoom to virtual game nights of complete smiles and laughter, this program has been one for the books! The One Health and the Environment approach to this Research Experience for Undergraduate students has encouraged me to build on my curiosity within the field of science, and I’m looking forward to applying what I’ve learned to my career in the future.

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