Squirrel sperm and feet tell a different climate change story
A Cape ground squirrel grooming in Namibia. Credit: Jane Waterman

The canary in a coal mine metaphor could be replaced with a squirrel. Two University of Manitoba studies found that climate change is altering ground squirrel's sperm and feet, and this warns of big consequences if the changes are not stopped.

The latest findings of Jane and Miya were published in the Journal ofMammalogy.

The Richardson's ground squirrel, a species found throughout the Canadian prairies, emerged from its winter slumber last year with non-motile sperm. Climate change did not result in fewer young people that year, but other negative consequences of males "shooting blanks" may emerge.

They wereIntrigued by this finding and looked at the effects of climate change on African ground squirrels.

As head of the Behavioral, Ecological & Evolutionary Research Lab at UM, Waterman has run a 20-year research project on a population of Cape ground Squirrels at a nature reserve in South Africa, and so has a trove of valuable data that she and post-doc fellow Warrington could rely on.

As the maximum temperature at the nature reserve has risen by more than 2C, the relative size of ground squirrel feet has increased, while their bodies have decreased. Ground Squirrels in South Africa are responding to the changing climate.

The bigger the squirrel's feet, the cooler it is for the ground squirrel. Smaller bodies are said to help animals shed heat at a faster rate. The results suggest that ground squirrel bodies may be changing in response to the heat stress they are experiencing.

Warming temperatures are not new for animals. Changes in animal shapes in response to climate change may have a bigger impact than just aesthetic.

What else is changing if the body is changing? We would like to look at the effects of stress and hormones as well as internal changes. Changes to their bodies and behavior can affect how they operate as a social species, which can affect their survival and reproduction.

The Cape Ground Squirrels are an important part of the ecology. Changing the vegetation around their burrow clusters and increasing the grassland's biodiversity can have consequences for the environment, which is one of the most threatened on the planet.

There are many images of mass animal deaths due to climate change. The research team shows that the effects of climate change can be manageable. Climate change may affect the health and resilience of wildlife in the long run.

The studies show that nature can respond to rapid environmental changes. Humans need to be aware of all the effects of climate change so we can respond quickly.

More information is available in the Journal of Mammalogy. The article is titled "10093/jmammal/gyac107".

Journal information: Journal of Mammalogy