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Cli­mate change affects hiber­na­tion pat­tern of ground squirrels

pub­lished 11 August 2012 | mod­i­fied 11 August 2012

Hiber­na­tion altered by cli­mate change takes a toll on Rocky Moun­tain ani­mal species

(Edmon­ton) Cli­mate change is caus­ing a late wake-​up call from hiber­na­tion for a species of Rocky Moun­tain ground squir­rel (Sper­mophilus columbianus) and the effect is deadly.

Columbian ground squirrelA Uni­ver­sity of Alberta-​led inter­na­tional research team exam­ined data on a pop­u­la­tion of Columbian ground squir­rels and found that a trend of late-​spring snow­falls has delayed the ani­mals’ emer­gence from hiber­na­tion by 10 days over the last 20 years. The research results were pub­lished August 8 in the online edi­tion of the jour­nal Nature.

U of A evo­lu­tion­ary ecol­o­gist Jeff Lane explained that Columbian ground squir­rels are on a tight sched­ule: Females mate four days after emerg­ing from hiber­na­tion. They give birth 24 days later. The new­borns are nursed for 28 days, then they’re on their own.

Our data show that over the life of the study, the sur­vival rate of adult females has fallen by 20 per cent, and much of this could be due to late emer­gence from their bur­rows brought on by late-​spring snowfalls
Jeff Lane, lead author, evo­lu­tion­ary ecol­o­gist, Uni­ver­sity of Alberta »

Los­ing just 10 days dur­ing their short active period reduces their oppor­tu­nity to eat enough food so they can sur­vive through the next hiber­na­tion period of eight to nine months,” said Lane.

Research shows there’s lit­tle wig­gle room in the ground squirrel’s life cycle. The period of plant growth that pro­vides their food sup­ply is only three to four months long on their home turf, skirt­ing the Rocky Moun­tains. The study area is a 200-​metre by 400-​metre block in a sub-​alpine meadow west of Cal­gary. Lane says the data were col­lected through obser­va­tion, and by trap­ping and releas­ing all the ground squir­rels in the study area to mon­i­tor their con­di­tion. The study area was set up by U of A biol­o­gists in 1992. Lane began his hiber­na­tion study five years ago and col­lab­o­rated with researchers in Scot­land and France, and at the U of A.

The researchers say the study area’s Columbian ground squir­rel pop­u­la­tion trend has gone from one of growth 20 years ago to its cur­rent state of just main­tain­ing stability.

The above news item is reprinted from mate­ri­als avail­able at Uni­ver­sity of Alberta via EurekAlert!. Orig­i­nal text may be edited for con­tent and length.

(Source: Uni­ver­sity of Alberta News & Events, 08.08.2012)

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