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The Cutest Climate Change Culprits: Arctic Ground Squirrels

By digging burrows in permafrost, Arctic ground squirrels help destabilize the vast stores of carbon in the soil

(Ingo Arndt/Minden Pictures/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Earth-warming greenhouse gases come from many sources—cars, trucks, factories, volcanoes—but by far the cutest culprit contributing to climate change is the Arctic ground squirrel, Spermophilus parryii.

Arctic ground squirrels play an outsized role in engineering their environments by digging burrows in the permafrost terrain they call home—they're like worms, only bigger and cuddlier. In the process of burrowing, Arctic ground squirrels mix up the soil and, as a result, help destabilize the vast stores of carbon locked away in the frozen soil, says Rebecca Morelle for the BBC.

One of the big, big questions when it comes to global climate change is what's going to happen to the Arctic. Locked away in the permanently frozen soil is a staggering amount of partially decayed organic material. According to Morelle, there's twice as much carbon locked in the permafrost than there is in the atmosphere. Some scientists are worried that if the land thaws out, fires and microbial growth could cause a big burp of greenhouse gases to rush out from the Arctic—the so-called Arctic “permafrost bomb.”

Fuzzy little Arctic ground squirrels certainly aren't helping this increasingly perilous situation. Arctic ground squirrels not only break down soil, "they are bringing oxygen to the soil and they are fertilizing the soil with their urine and their faeces," Nigel Golden, one of the scientists behind the research, told the BBC's Morelle.

They might also be responding to climatic changes, as Miles O'Brief reports for PBS NewsHour.

Proportionately, Arctic ground squirrels are unlikely to be anywhere near a dominant contributor to increasing global greenhouse gas levels. But figuring out exactly how big of a role they play would be an important step in understanding the role of animals in maintaining the tenuous balance of the ecosystem. 
About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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