Climate change could mean fewer ‘date nights’ for Arctic ground squirrels

As temperatures rise in the north, scientists say it is affecting the way Arctic ground squirrels hibernate, and could have serious consequences for the species.

The furry creatures survive harsh arctic winters by burrowing underground and hibernating for eight months before emerging in the spring ready to eat and breed. As males go through seasonal puberty each year, they typically wake up a month early to be ready to mate when female arctic ground squirrels reemerge.

But in a new study published in Science, researchers found that over the past 25 years, female squirrels have come out of hibernation about 10 days earlier in response to earlier spring thaws, while males have not.

“If this continues, the females will be ready to mate with the males before the males are physiologically capable of mating with the females,” said lead author Cory Williams, an assistant professor in Colorado State University’s department of biology. who has been studying the arctic soil. squirrels for more than 15 years.

The researchers said that could mean fewer “date nights,” which could affect reproduction.

Williams said that because male squirrels come out of hibernation early, they are less responsive to environmental cues than females. She said that so far, changes in females’ hibernation patterns have not affected squirrel populations, and in the future, males could adapt to keep in phase with females.

“Predicting the long-term consequences of climate change on ecosystems is incredibly difficult due to ecological interactions, but it is clear that Arctic systems are changing rapidly,” he said.

Other possible consequences of a shorter hibernation season are that squirrels could increase their exposure to predators such as foxes, wolves, and eagles.

However, not all bad news. It could also mean that the squirrels won’t have to use as much stored fat and energy during hibernation. Starting foraging earlier could also lead to healthier offspring.

#ClimateChange could mean fewer ‘date nights’ for #Arctic ground squirrels: study. #Arctic Squirrels

Other changes the researchers observed are that the squirrels delay the timing and duration of heat production during hibernation in response to the slower freezing of the permafrost. While squirrels dramatically reduce the functions of their lungs, heart, brain, and body during hibernation, they use some energy to generate heat from stored fat to avoid freezing, even when their body temperatures drop below freezing. c.

The study authors analyzed 25 years of air and ground temperatures at two locations in Arctic Alaska. They also measured the abdominal and skin temperatures of 199 squirrels during the same period.

“These arctic systems are changing relatively quickly,” Williams said, noting that other studies have found it is warming four times faster than the global average.

“Our study really indicates that this is happening and it’s happening fast, and we should expect these ecosystems to change over time.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on May 28, 2023.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of Meta and the Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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