Arctic Squirrels Recycle Nutrients to Survive Winter

Category: Science/Environment


Unlocking Word Meanings

Read the following words/expressions found in today’s article.

  1. hibernation / haɪ bərˈneɪ shən / (n) – the act of sleeping or resting for long periods during winter  

    Some animals eat a lot of food before winter to prepare for hibernation.

  2. fascinated / ˈfæs əˌneɪ tid / (adj) – highly interested in someone or something

    I’ve always been fascinated by sci-fi movies.

  3. forgo / fɔrˈgoʊ / (v) – to give up using or enjoying something

    The company’s senior officers decided to forgo their bonuses this year because the company was struggling.

  4. chemistry / ˈkɛm ə stri / (n) – the structure and properties of a substance

    The scientists are studying how stress affects humans’ brain chemistry.

  5. atrophy / ˈæ trə fi / (v) – to become smaller in size and weaker

    Because she was sick in bed for almost a year, her muscles had atrophied.


Read the text below.

A study done by the University of Alaska Fairbanks found that Arctic ground squirrels recycle their bodies’ own nutrients to survive hibernation during winter.

Scientists have always been fascinated by the squirrels’ hibernation habits. For as long as 8 months out of the year, Arctic ground squirrels hibernate. During hibernation, the animals almost completely shut down their bodies, forgoing food and water and only breathing once every minute. Despite their extreme hibernation, the squirrels are able to maintain their muscle mass and do not suffer from any long-term cellular damage.

To understand how they survive, the researchers analyzed the body chemistry of hibernating Arctic ground squirrels. They observed the animals for two years in a laboratory setting.

Findings showed that the squirrels’ muscles atrophied in above-freezing temperatures. As their muscles atrophied, the animals converted nitrogen, which was released as the muscles thinned down, into amino acids. These amino acids were used to create proteins that helped keep the lungs, kidneys, and muscles healthy.

The findings confirm a theory formed from previous studies. The theory states that some hibernating animals recycle nutrients like nitrogen to survive during hibernation.

The researchers suggest that learning more about hibernation could help scientists and doctors develop medical treatments for humans, like helping prevent muscle loss among the elderly and people with cancer. It could also help treat severe injuries and develop measures for astronauts to help prevent muscle loss during space missions.

Viewpoint Discussion

Enjoy a discussion with your tutor.

Discussion A

• Do you think hibernation is an important field for scientists to study? Why or why not?
• Would you hibernate if you could? Why or why not?

Discussion B

• What other animal adaptations should scientists study (e.g. how camels survive in the desert, why some animals have spines)? Why?
• What animal adaptation do you wish humans had (e.g. webbed feet for swimming, ability to regrow limbs)? Discuss.