Arctic Ground Squirrel Studies 2017

What Are They Doing?

Photo by Andre WilleAn Arctic ground squirrel eating a carrot in a cage. Photo by Andre Wille. The climate of the Arctic is extreme and characterized by long dark cold winters and short bright cool summers. Arctic ground squirrels avoid the long winters by spending 7-9 months below-ground hibernating, reaching body temperatures as low as -3°C as they supercool their tissues. But the onset of spring in the Arctic can be variable depending on the depth of the winter snowpack that needs to melt and the prevalence of late spring snowstorms. How do arctic ground squirrels know when to terminate hibernation and emerge to the surface?

Predicting how species might alter their annual timing in response to rapid environmental change, including climate change, is constrained by insufficient knowledge of the endogenous mechanisms animals use to keep time, the cues used to adjust timing, and the extent to which programmed seasonal cycles are physiologically plastic. This study will investigate the mechanisms that underlie plasticity in the seasonal induction of the neuroendocrine signals that trigger the termination of hibernation and onset of reproduction in ground squirrels.

Where Are They?

Photo by Andre WilleA view of the Brooks Range near Toolik Lake, Alaska. Photo by Andre Wille. From Fairbanks, Alaska the team will embark 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 will be accessed by pick-up truck or on foot.

Expedition Map


Jackets and pants
Preparing for the trip is an ongoing task and takes more time than I expected. I’ve been working closely with Robbie Score of Polar Field Services. She is helping me to organize all of the logistical parts of the trip. For example, she helped me organize my flights and she has also booked my accommodation at Toolik Field Station. We tried to get that done as quickly as possible, as there are three types of accommodation from my understanding – beds in rooms that are warm, cold, and colder – and they decide who gets which spot based on how early they booked and how long they’ll be there. Since...
We meet
During orientation the PolarTREC teachers had a field trip to the Museum of the North, which was on the University of Alaska, Fairbanks campus where we had our training. It was here that I first met Jeanette Moore, a researcher for Team Squirrel. It was great to meet someone from the research team I would be working with, even though she wouldn’t be in the field with us. But meeting Jeanette was only half the fun. With her, she brought a hibernating female Arctic ground squirrel. It was a great opportunity for me to see the animal I will be studying in the field in such a short time. This...
Orientation training
I have been in Fairbanks for only a short time - two full days - but I feel like I have seen and learned a lot already. I know what -20˚C feels like on my face. I've heard the snow squeaking under my the enormous arctic boots I have borrowed. I've seen the sun rise and set on the same side of the building due to the season and latitude. I've also spent the last two days mostly seated, taking notes and listening to talks on several topics, given by many different presenters. It has been very informative, but also very tiring. As a teacher, I often forget how it feels to be the student and to...
Acceptance After my PolarTREC interview, I found myself checking my inbox and junk mail thoroughly everyday for weeks, waiting to find out if I had been selected or not. When the email came, it was in my junk mail and I was quite proud of myself for finding it, though this had more to do with the informative subject line than with my sleuthing abilities. Less than a second later, I realized that in the subject was also the word "Congratulations". I was sitting with my mom when the email came, and we shared some happy tears. That night, my family gave me a balloon and card to celebrate. I was...

Project Information

13 April 2017 to 5 May 2017
Location: Toolik Field Station, Alaska
Project Funded Title: Collaborative Research: Neuroendocrine modulation of circannual rhythms in mammals

Meet the Team

Jennifer Baldacci's picture
International School of Basel

Jennifer Baldacci was born in Chicago and grew up in Florida, where she developed a love of nature. She studied Biology at Florida State University, followed by master's degrees in Entomology and Ecology from UC Davis and Boston University. Throughout her studies, she had amazing opportunities to do field research with excellent instructors in both temperate and tropical climates. She later worked as a zookeeper in Boston and as an endangered bat consultant.

After an inspiring year of traveling around the world, Ms. Baldacci decided to become a teacher to share her interests in science with others. She has been teaching for ten years and works at the International School of Basel in Switzerland, where she enjoys teaching 8th grade Science and high school Biology and Chemistry to students from over 50 nationalities. She works hard to be a positive role model for her students, and to encourage them to become passionate learners. Ms. Baldacci is excited to have the opportunity to work with Team Squirrel in the Arctic to remind her students that there are always new discoveries to be made.

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

It's hard to believe that your trip is almost here already! I look forward to following your adventure via your blogs.
Hi Jennifer! So excited for you! And yes, Robbie Score is so awesome. She'll have exactly what you need to be comfortable while you're chasing those grey furry critters! Don't forget to bring...
That is a long list of supplies. It's a good thing you don't have to drag all of that with you to AK. I don't know if I could handle all of that. You are tougher than I am. Have fun!!! I'll be...
As expected, you and Adeena are both packing at the same time. You both also posted journals about packing two hours apart from each other! It looks like your bag will be pretty light though, since a...
You're doing such a good job. I'm impressed how well you did with all the new tech thrown at us last week. You Rock!