Columbian ground squirrels may not survive warm Alberta winter, researcher says

Unseasonably warm temperatures in Southern Alberta could spell trouble for small critters and the larger carnivores that eat them, according to animal ecologist Jeffrey Lane.

'What's best for a hibernating animal is just what's best for your steak or your veggies at home,' expert says

Columbian ground squirrels are similar to canaries in the coal mine when it comes to a healthy environment, says animal ecologist Jeffrey Lane. ( Jeffrey Lane)

Unseasonably warm temperatures in Southern Alberta could spell trouble for small critters and the larger carnivores that eat them, according to one animal ecologist.

Though counterintuitive, a warmer environment can actually cause these animals in hibernation to burn through their fat stores more quickly, said University of Saskatchewan animal ecologist Jeffrey Lane.

With Calgary breaking a 90-year-old weather record Tuesday and with more above-zero temperatures in the forecast, there's a growing danger that the snowpack will thin and hibernating animals will become more vulnerable to swings in above-ground temperature. 

Lane studies Columbian Ground Squirrels in Kananaskis and says their hibernating systems are analogous to the way your kitchen fridge works.

"What's best for a hibernating animal is just what's best for your steak or your veggies at home," he said. "You want a nice cool and stable temperature."

Alberta's Columbian ground squirrels typically spend the winter a metre underground in Kananaskis, blanketed by cool soil and snow that enables them to maintain a constant temperature in their hibernaculum, or hibernating chamber. 

"Even though it can be -40 C above ground or maybe even 10 C, so long as they've got that insulating snowpack and enough cold dirt, it'll be relatively stable at about 0 C where they're hibernating," Lane said. 

Ripple effects for owls, hawks, bears

Just as food would spoil at higher fridge temperatures, hibernating squirrels can find themselves in a bind when things begin to heat up.

As the snowpack melts, temperatures in the hibernaculum will begin to creep up.

That in turn will boost the metabolism and enzyme activity of the animals inside and cause them to burn through their energy stores faster, Lane said.

"They may not be able to make it through if they have to spend too much of that fat."

While Lane admits not many people will find ground squirrels as appealing as he does, his guess is that people do care about the owls, hawks, badgers and even bears that eat those squirrels. 

"Lots and lots of different things feed on these ground squirrels, so we start to get a little bit worried if the base or the foundations of our food chains start to be disrupted, because it's probably going to affect everything that goes on above them," he said.

Lane said it's too early to begin panicking, but researchers will continue to monitor the status of these ground squirrels in the months to come. 

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