Squirrels and climate change

Winter is a pain in the animal kingdom. Birds can flee it by migrating to warmer climes but grounded beasts, including mammals, have no choice but to stick around. To cope, many species have learned to hibernate. Some, like the Columbian ground squirrel, spend up to nine months of each year in their alcoves. This conserves energy but leaves them with only three months to plump up for the next winter and, crucially, to procreate.

To make matters worse, climate change is leading them to emerge from hibernation later than usual. On the face of it, global warming should mean that the critters have longer ice-free periods in which to go about their evolutionary tasks. But it can also disturb weather patterns, which may have the opposite effect. Jeffrey Lane, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Edinburgh, in Britain, points out that in the squirrels’ natural habitat of the Canadian Rockies, climate change manifests itself in late-spring snow storms.

Because female Columbian ground squirrels remain in their place of birth, the researchers were able to tag and observe them and their offspring each year for the past two decades. A typical female would bear three kittens. On average, only 30% of them survive the first winter, enough to sustain population numbers since female squirrels can expect three or four litters in their lifetime. If the proportion falls, however, the population dwindles.

As Dr Lane and his colleagues report in Nature, in the first decade of the study the number of squirrels dropped just once. But it fell in four of the past ten years. Dr Lane speculates that this might be explained by the fact that over the past 20 years the late snow has delayed the melting of ice by half a day each year, on average, shortening the squirrels’ breeding and feeding season by several days and disrupting their life cycles. Since mothers have less time to squirrel away (if you will) nutrients in their bodies before it is time to hibernate, the suckling kittens are left more vulnerable.

Correlation is not causation, of course, and other factors might be behind the decline in the number of squirrels. But longer winters are unlikely to help.

Also published on economist.com.


  1. Lane et al.Nature, 2012.
  2. Lane et al.J. Evol. Biol., 2011, 1949.

 Image credit: Jeffrey Lane.

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