Arctic Ground Squirrel Studies 2014

What Are They Doing?

Arctic Ground SquirrelArctic Ground Squirrel In the Arctic, bright summers and dark winters are a fact of life and can lead humans to rely on clocks and routines to tell them when to eat or sleep, but how do animals function under these conditions? Circadian rhythms refer to the "internal body clock" that regulates the approximately 24-hour cycle of biological processes in animals and plants. Rhythms in body temperature, brain wave activity, hormone production, and other biological activities are linked to this 24-hour cycle. The Earth's light-dark cycle provides the strongest influence on circadian rhythms and is thought to be the primary driver for the emergence and evolution of internal clocks. In the Polar Regions, however, photoperiod exhibits extreme annual variation because of near 24 hour sunlight in the summer and 24 hour darkness in the winter. In the absence of a well-defined light-dark cycle, some arctic residents lose their daily organization of behavior and physiology, and it is thought that the molecular clockwork that drives circadian rhythms may be weak or absent in arctic vertebrates.

The research team has recently found that the arctic ground squirrel displays daily rhythms of body temperature throughout the arctic summer, in the absence of a light-dark cycle. The current study will investigate the circadian rhythms in arctic ground squirrels during the continuous daylight present during the active summer season and continuous dark of the 6-8 months of hibernation spent sequestered in a burrow. The team wants to understand why arctic ground squirrels, unlike other arctic vertebrates, appear to maintain 24-hour rhythms during the active season. They hypothesize that the persistence of circadian rhythmicity allows ground squirrels to reduce energy expenditure by anticipating predictable changes in its immediate surroundings. They are testing their hypothesis by experimentally phase-shifting free-living ground squirrels to be active at 'night' and estimating their subsequent rates of energy expenditure.

Where Are They?

Squirrel traps on the tundra at Toolik Lake, AlaskaSquirrel traps on the tundra at Toolik Lake, Alaska From Fairbanks, Alaska the team embarked on an eight hour drive to Toolik Field Station, located in the northern foothills of the Brooks Range in northern Alaska. Toolik Field Station is operated by the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and has hosted hundreds of researchers and students every year since 1975. The team's research sites around the Toolik Lake area were accessed by pick-up truck or on foot.

Expedition Map


Marmot and Pipit
After climbing Colorado's 14,003 foot tall Mount Huron, I stumbled upon a surprising natural interaction between a Marmot and a songbird known as the Water Pipit. I am going to call it a crime scene, because of the heinous nature of the act that was committed by the marmot, and the extreme distress exhibited by the victim, the mother pipit. I first noticed something going on when I heard the repeated alarm calls of a small tan colored bird, amid a field of beautiful wildflowers. I recognized the bird as a pipit, and knowing that they nest only on the treeless tundra, I was intrigued. I...
Collared squirrel
I have been home now for about a week since my "polar to solar" travels from the North Slope of Alaska, to the tropics of Hawaii. What an incredible journey! Experiences like this can have a profound effect on people, and I am sure this is the case in my situation. The PolarTrec experience took me out of my normal, day to day routine of high school teaching and thrust me into a completely new situation. I met new colleagues, and together we shared the common goal of completing our research task in a wild and challenging landscape. Though I came to Team Squirrel with some relevant background...
Ohi'a blossom
Part of my attraction to the PolarTrec program is that anything that can survive in polar regions has to be incredibly well adapted to a challenging environment. Plants and animals that can tolerate such extremes could be considered "extremophiles". They thrive or at least survive in the world's most demanding conditions. In the arctic, the challenges include long periods of winter darkness, wind, and temperatures below -40 degrees F. In other climates, the demands may be very different such as heat in the hottest desert, or pressure in the deep seas. Because most animals migrate into the...
Mauna Loa
After a long winter at home, then a month in the Alaskan Arctic, I felt a need for some time with my wife Julie and the tropics. Time for "Polar to Solar" v2.0; Destination, the Big Island of Hawaii. What better way to make up for missed summer than a visit to the beach. To melt some of the permafrost, why not an active volcano! After crossing the arctic circle at 66 degrees north, time to go south of the Tropic of Cancer at 23 degrees . After no sunsets in the arctic, Julie helped lower the sun below the horizon for a beautiful sunset over the pacific. Kilauea volcano at night. The...
Each day in the field I continue to see new species of animals. There are surprises around every corner. On our drive back to Fairbanks, the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve sits on one side and Gates of the Arctic National Park on the other. Near Atigan Pass, a Golden Eagle flew directly towards our moving car. Amazed, we later saw that it was being chased by a Northern Harrier (Hawk). Later, on the other side of the Pass and in the Boreal forest, a moose stood in the road as we rounded a corner. Considering the demands of life in the arctic, I was amazed by the diversity of life. While it...

Expedition Resources

Project Information

26 May 2014 to 19 June 2014
Location: Toolik Field Station, Alaska
Project Funded Title: Collaborative Research: Persistence, entrainment, and function of circadian rhythms in arctic ground squirrels

Meet the Team

Andre Wille's picture
Aspen High School
Aspen, CO
United States

Mr. Wille is a veteran science teacher at Aspen High School in Colorado. Andre teaches all levels of biology, as well as chemistry and integrated science. Andre actively utilizes the "outdoor classroom" to make scientific learning relevant. His students are involved in independent research and citizen science projects near the high school. Andre also leads a variety of outdoor education trips including a week long "Polar to Solar" ski mountaineering and desert canyoneering course. Andre's research interests include aquatic ecology, adaptation to extreme environments, and ornithology. When not teaching, Andre enjoys time in the outdoors with his wife Julie and daughters Anna and Sara.

Cory Williams's picture
Northern Arizona University
Flagstaff, AZ
United States

Cory Williams is currently a research assistant professor at Northern Arizona University. His research examines the physiological and behavioral mechanisms that allow animals to cope with environmental change. Specifically, he is interested in the functional and ecological significance of circadian rhythms in arctic vertebrates and the factors underlying plasticity in the timing of annually recurring life-cycle events. Ultimately, the capacity of polar animals to adjust their timing in response to changing environmental conditions, either through phenotypic plasticity or microevolution, will be an important determinant of their resilience to climate change.

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Latest Comments

Related experiments with Arctic ground squirrels have been ongoing for many years now, and they will likely continue into the future. Each research question that is answered generates a whole new set...
I'm not really sure in terms of the diet of the overall animal fauna of the tundra. It is an interesting question though. In such a demanding climate, everything needs all the calories it can...
It stuck around for as long as I did. I suspect when I left the area it came back and finished the meal is=t started. I imagine the other nestlings were also doomed. On 9/24/14 8:46 AM, webmaster@...
Did the marmot come back to try to eat the other birds, or did the marmot just leave?
What can the birds teach us about ways to adapt to harsh conditions and spreading out to unfamiliar territory?