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.

Botany bulletin: So apparently oak trees go nutty every few years, and 2015 is one of them

A squirrel enjoying a masting?   Photo by Hills_Alive

The Albany Times-Union has an excellent write-up on the far-reaching ramifications of a masting, the awkward botanical term for a regional over-supply of acorns. Apparently, 2015 is a “masting” for the oak trees of the Northeast. (It does seem this way in my little corner of Queens, where walking under the gargantuan, smog-fed oak trees can leave one a little fearful of an acorn-related skull fracture.)

Why 2015? It seems to be related to optimal weather conditions, and the necessity is driven by survival: Acorns are so appealing to wildlife that oak trees have to over-compensate to guarantee a few won’t get eaten by critters.

“…Acorns are so tasty, such a nutritious food resource, so many animals like them, that if they produce a few every year every single one of them would be eaten up,” a biologist said.

And, at first this all sounds like a net positive: More acorns + more squirrels + more oak trees  = more fodder for Squirrels, Squirrels, Squirrels.

But alas! There’s a dark side. We’ll not give away the spoiler, because the newspaper did all the hard work and we’re a firm believer in giving credit where credit is due. So check it out for yourself: This year’s acorn cascade has hidden impact

And, in celebration of the masting, here’s some gorgeous pictures celebrating all things acorny.

A woodpecker prepping for the apocalypse:
Acorn Woodpecker m.

Still life with acorns:
Fresh acorns

Convincing proof that the universe is just one giant, ever-expanding acorn:
Quercus rubrum, acorn cap, ontario_2014-08-08-10.51.08 ZS PMax

The perfect cake for sending to the authors of SqSqSq:bûche de noël - oak leaves & acorns

Another reason not to keep squirrels as pets: A fun little brain infection called Bornavirus

Variegated Squirrel 3

Photo credit: budgora 

Watch out: This cute little guy, who’s native to Central America, could be harboring the deadly “variegated squirrel 1 bornavirus,” which appears to cause a slow, awful-sounding death from encephalitis, at least among three variegated squirrel breeders in Germany, reports Live Science and the European equivalent of the CDC:

“During the prodromal (symptomatic) phase, which lasted for two weeks or longer, the patients presented with fever and shivering, fatigue, weakness and walking difficulties. Due to increased confusion and psychomotor impairment they were admitted to neurology wards where they developed ocular paresis (<–weakness and paralysis in the eye muscles, causing things like crossed eyes and double vision). They rapidly deteriorated within a few days and died after some time in intensive care, despite mechanical ventilation.”

Ouch. We here at Squirrels, Squirrels, Squirrels want to remind readers that yes, while squirrels are abundantly charming and cute, they aren’t great pets for many reasons, including their rare-but-entirely-possible ability to transmit bornavirus to people.