Sunday, August 19, 2012

Climate Change and The Belding's Ground Squirrel

Continuing on the topic of squirrels and global warming, a study just released by the University of California-Berkeley looks at how climate change is affecting the Belding's ground squirrel (note that this article discusses two studies; the study concerning the ground squirrels is covered in the second half of the article).

Hey, I think someone's talking about us!

The Belding's ground squirrel lives in mountainous areas of western North America. Its range covers parts of northern California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Nevada. This medium-sized squirrel prefers high meadows and brushy areas with an ample supply of vegetation and water. Related female squirrels live and interact together in colonies, while the adult males are nomadic.

Like most ground squirrels, Belding's ground squirrels hibernate through the cold winter months. The timing of the hibernation depends both on the altitude of the colony and the sex of the individual. As one might expect, squirrels living at higher elevations enter hibernation sooner than those at lower elevations. Also, males usually enter hibernation earlier than females. Related females often hibernate together, while males hibernate alone.

The study that I linked to at the beginning of this post looked at the movements of populations of the Belding's ground squirrel in response to global climate change. The authors of the study found that the squirrels had disappeared from more than forty percent of the areas that they had been recorded in the early part of the twentieth century. The disappearances were most common in higher-elevation areas that have experienced pronounced increases in temperature and rainfall in the past century. This finding was a surprise to the researchers, as the species has not been considered to be threatened and was in fact thought to be quite common. On the other hand, the Belding's ground squirrel has increased in some areas that have been modified by humans.

Although the Belding's ground squirrel is still not considered to be under serious thread, the unexpected declines demonstrate clearly how serious and complex an issue climate change is.

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