Arctic Ground Squirrels Hibernate

Arctic Ground Squirrels Hibernate

Squirrels in Arctic areas seem to have a hibernation technique which could be described as suspended animation. Arctic ground squirrels (Urocitellus purryii) go into a state of deep torpor breathing once a minute with a heart rate of five beats per minute. Every two to three weeks, the squirrels revive for 12 to 24 hours, but they don’t eat, drink, or eliminate during that time.

Researchers from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, have found that hibernating Arctic ground squirrels have skeletal muscle breakdown, releasing nitrogen to compensate for lack of food. Even though this is happening, the squirrel’s total muscle mass doesn’t change. It appears that they have protein stored up to handle their needs, but scientists are trying to understand where and how that protein is made available. This is another designed characteristic that allows life to exist in the Arctic.

Realize that there are unique problems in an ecosystem that is shut down for eight months. The design of larger animals allows them to migrate, and caribou herds go great distances to survive the Arctic winter. The migration of salmon into Arctic waters is another provision for animal survival. The salmon become food for Arctic animals, and their bodies become fertilizer so plants can grow in an area with virtually no soil.

Smaller animals have a big problem because they can’t migrate, and their plant-based food sources have a very short growing season. It appears that Arctic ground squirrels are a vital link in maintaining the balance of food and plant growth. The squirrels bury seeds so new plants can grow, and they provide a nutrient source for predators like wolves and wolverines. The complexity of how they do this has led to a whole new area of biology with its own magazine–Nature Metabolism.

Scientists are researching the Arctic ground squirrels’ metabolism to understand how this complex system works. Whatever the biochemistry involved, it is highly complex and strongly supports the belief that God designed life forms to survive even in a cold environment.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Reference: Nature Metabolism December 7, 2020 and Science News for January 30, 2021, page 10.