Arctic Ground Squirrel Studies 2017


Now Archived! PolarConnect event with Jenn Baldacci and "Team Squirrel" from Toolik Field Station in Alaska. You can access this and other events on the PolarConnect Archives webpage.

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


Denali range
Jeanette dropped me off at the airport in Fairbanks and that double rainbow was a good way to end my day. I was not in the airport long before my flight boarded, and the flight was only 50 minutes to Anchorage. The views were beautiful along the way, and I sat next to an army medic expecting his first child. His wife and her two kids live in Anchorage, so he was on his way to see them, happy that he would be moving there soon when he retired from army life. She is also in the service, and he is hoping to get into the Air Force next. I wish him luck. The Denali range from the flight to...
As I get ready to head home, I wanted to share a couple more videos I made. The Cutest Squirrel This one was a squirrel we released and the whole thing took place while we were still exactly in position. Cory didn't even have time to close the trap before she came back out of her burrow. We just stood in place for about three minutes while she grabbed some carrot and carried on like we weren't there. I've fast forwarded through parts to make it shorter. It's adorable. Tail flick Ms. Harris, this is the tail flick communication you asked about. I'm still not sure of the meaning, but...
Arctic circle
Today we left Toolik. I woke up at 7am to finish cleaning my room and packing up sleeping bags, which is always harder than it looks. I borrowed one sleeping bag when I arrived to lay down on the bed as a bottom sheet, and then I had my fleece liner that I slept in with another sleeping bag on top of me. It worked very well for keeping me warm, though it would have been nicer if the fleece liner unzipped more than halfway, so I could use it like a top sheet. None of them packed up super easily. This is a zoomed in view from the dining hall At breakfast I got a chance to see everyone again...
I'm Melting It has been fairly warm here for the last four days, actually getting to 41F/5˚C today. It means people walking around without hats and gloves, and riding snowmachines in their t-shirts. It also means the snow is starting to melt, and melt quickly. At Atigun on Sunday, the tundra was noticeably less snow-covered. At Toolik, the snow is still around but becoming more slushy, making it harder to use the snowmachine to access trap sites. You can see here how the view changed from where we would leave our things at Atigun over the course of about two weeks. East Atigun April 18...
Today was our last day working at the Atigun field site. It is Sunday, and we leave Toolik on Wednesday to go back to Fairbanks. Cory flies out the same night, and I fly out the next night. It is finally hitting me that my adventure in science is coming to an end. A day with clouds is still beautiful. We have spent most days working at Atigun, and I really like it there. It's beautiful. The snow is starting to melt after the trio of warm days we've had, so more tundra is peeking out now. The warm days have all been just around 32˚F/0˚C, but in the sun they truly do feel warm, with only a...

Expedition Resources

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

Thanks Adeena. It was a really great season to be there and see it happening. So much beauty..and so much water!
I have been seeing the same thing in Greenland. I never thought about the seasons of the Arctic before but after being there I have realized that Spring is melt season. It's wet, muddy, warm and a...
Work hard, play hard. If I stayed here, I would really have to limit myself.
I feel the same way. The food is good and plentiful. I thought I would get here and loose weight because of the different food and the environment but instead I was introduced to cookies, dessert,...
Yes, it is Atigun! We work very close to the pipeline!