Wow: 13-lined ground squirrels endures winter by packing fat *into* heart

Denver 2009 - Thirteen-Lined Ground Squirrel 01

A thirteen-lined ground squirrel going on a fat binge. Photo

The editorial staff of Squirrels, Squirrels, Squirrels has visited Minnesota in December. So, we’re only partially surprised to read the findings of a cool study out of Duluth, which examines how the 13-lined ground squirrel hibernates without becoming a completely frozen solid squirrel-sicle.

(I mean, these cute critters of course have fur and can huddle together in their little hidey-holes, but still, when it’s -40 outside, …it seems like only White Walkers should be alive and in the mood for napping, while everyone else gets on an RV and heads to South Padre Island.)

Anyway, how do they do it? It takes extreme metabolism to counter the extreme weather. Precisely, they literally store fat in their hearts, and then slowly burn off that fat all winter long. Yes, it sounds counter-intuitive to long-term survival (equivalent to a human eating a triple-bacon cheeseburger for every meal), but the long starvation following their autumn pig-out creates a metabolic state known as “ketosis,” and that apparently brings them good tidings, cheer and above-average longevity compared to similar non-hibernating species.

Lest you wonder why the hell anyone cares, Katharine Gammon, writing in Chemical & Engineering News, clears that right up for you:

“Eventually, this knowledge may help researchers develop ways to protect heart tissue from the harmful effects of free radicals that are produced after a heart attack.”

So there. Squirrel research saving lives.

13-Lined Ground Squirrel Is Focus of Transplant Research

(13-lined Ground Squirrel, originally uploaded by The Horned Jack Lizard.)

The Wisconsin State Journal has an interesting story today about how the 13-lined ground squirrel is the focus of organ transplant research.

Yep, this oddly named species of squirrel, known for the lovely series of spots and stripes flanking its fur, is quite the ambitious hibernator, so much so that it has aroused the interest of medical researchers.

As it turns out, the livers harvested from rodents that can hibernate (13-lined ground squirrels) last much longer outside of the body than livers harvested from rodents that can’t hibernate (rats).

As this older, but more in-depth ABC News article puts it, “It is one of the great physiological marvels of the natural world because the squirrel is able to protect and preserve its critical organs despite extreme biological insults over a period of several months.”

I’m not sure, but it seems that the lead researcher is hoping that unlocking the genetic clues of hibernation could lead to the development of a human-style hibernation, to be induced prior to harvesting organs from dying humans (although it seems that this raises all sorts of ethical issues, a la the movie Coma.).

I have to admit, I feel a bit sorry for the research subjects; it can’t be much fun to be unwittingly signed up to have your organs removed and studied.