Although the Arctic is warming faster than any other region on Earth, there is relatively little research on how this heating is affecting animals. This new paper, which covers more than 25 years in Northern Alaska, is one of the first long-term research projects to present strong evidence that warming is directly changing the physiological processes of Arctic species.
“This study is relatively unusual because it shows that warming is directly impacting a mammal,” said Cory T. Williams, an assistant professor at Colorado State University and a co-author of the study. “Some people might say, ‘OK, a 10-day advance over 25 years doesn’t seem that fast.’ But in terms of climate, that’s incredibly fast.”
Arctic ground squirrels might look cute, but males can be very territorial. They get into a lot of fights during mating season, some deadly. They have tails, but not long, bushy ones like squirrels found farther south. And they make distinctive whistling noises that could easily be mistaken for the chirp of a small bird. Some Alaska Natives call them parka squirrels because their fur makes a nice, warm fringe for the hood of a coat.
Scientists have long been interested in their hibernation patterns.
During the long winter sleep, the squirrels’ core body temperature can drop to about 27 degrees Fahrenheit, or roughly minus 3 Celsius, with their resting heart rate falling as low as three beats per minute. More knowledge about that process could lead to advances in therapeutic hypothermia, a medical treatment in which the body temperature is lowered to prevent injury. It’s sometimes used after cardiac arrest.
But the most pressing challenge, scientists say, is getting a grip on the changes happening in the Far North.
“The big gap is just understanding what is happening in the Arctic in general,” Dr. Williams said. “This study shows why we need long-term projects to understand the changes happening across different levels.”