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Squirrels Getting Fatter With Climate Change

Squirrels Getting Fatter With Climate Change

Longer summers are causing marmots — which are large, ground-dwelling squirrels — to become heftier, heartier and more plentiful, according to a 33-year study published in the latest issue of Nature.
The study is the first to show that a shift in seasonal timing can cause an animal to change its body mass and population size. In this case, marmots living at around two miles elevation in the Colorado Rocky Mountains are, for now, benefiting from the shift.
That may not remain true, however, if the climate continues to change.
“If climatic predictions come to pass, we will ultimately have less summer rainfall, and late summer droughts are a real problem for marmots,” co-author Daniel Blumstein, a professor and chair of UCLA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, told Discovery News.
There is also the potential problem of having too many marmots in the ecosystem. But, as Blumstein reminded, “before we start worrying about being knee-deep in marmots, populations of predators and prey are often linked, and we’ve had a concomitant increase in the predators (foxes and coyotes) in some of our colonies.”
For the study, Blumstein and his colleagues analyzed data on body mass, survival and reproduction of yellow-bellied marmots living in the Rocky Mountains. Every year, the scientists trapped marmots at each colony multiple times during the summer and individually marked them using numbered ear tags. They recorded the sex, mass and reproductive condition of each captured animal.
The researchers found that marmots are waking up from hibernation around 21 days earlier now. With more time to eat, the ground-dwelling squirrels are getting fatter. Adult females, for example, are about a full pound heavier now than they were in the earlier years of the study.