Coping with differences in snow cover: The impact on the condition, physiology and fitness of an arctic hibernator

Michael J. Sheriff, Rudy Boonstra, Rupert Palme, C. Loren Buck, Brian M. Barnes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


The Earth’s climate is changing at an unprecedented rate and, as ecologists, we are challenged with the difficult task of predicting how individuals and populations will respond to climate-induced changes to local and global ecosystems. Although we are beginning to understand some of the responses to changing seasonality, the physiological mechanisms that may drive these responses remain unknown. Using long-term data comparing two nearby populations (<20 km apart) of free-living arctic ground squirrels in northern Alaska, we have previously shown that the timing of spring snowmelt greatly influences their phenology of hibernation and reproduction in a population and site-specific manner. Here, we integrate these site-specific phenologies with body condition, stress physiology, reproductive success and juvenile recruitment to understand phenotypic selection in the two populations. We found that at the site with relatively late spring snowmelt and early autumn snow cover: (i) adult females were larger and in better body condition but had significantly higher stress hormone levels; (ii) females had similar numbers of comparably sized offspring, but offspring had higher stress hormone levels; and (iii) offspring density was lower just prior to hibernation. Thus, adult females at the two sites appear to use different coping strategies that allow them to maintain reproductive fitness; however, marked shortening of the active season because of later snowmelt in spring and earlier snow cover in autumn may compromise juvenile recruitment. We discuss the significance of these findings within the broader context of changing animal-environment relationships.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbercox065
JournalConservation Physiology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2017


  • Arctic ground squirrel
  • Climate change
  • Phenology
  • Stress physiology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Ecological Modeling
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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