Arctic Squirrels Recycle Their Bodies To Survive Winter

Arctic ground squirrels can survive long, harsh winters with temperatures far below freezing, and they can go for up to eight months without eating. This is because arctic ground squirrels hibernate from autumn to spring in a state where they only breathe once a minute, and their hearts beat only five times per minute. They revive every two or three weeks for about 12 to 24 hours so that their body temperature can rise. The squirrels will shiver and sleep, but they will not eat, drink, or defecate for the entire hibernation period.

After thorough research, chemical signals were found in the skeletal muscle of the squirrel, which was slowly breaking down. This process would release compounds containing nitrogen, which is an important element for protein production within the body. Hibernators, such as these squirrels, are known to hang on to their muscle mass while hibernating. After the research results, scientists wondered whether these squirrels build up new stores of protein during hibernation. If they do, how do they do it?

Researchers tracked the flow of nitrogen in the squirrels’ bodies. This provided clues to how they store their protein during hibernation. Studies revealed that the nitrogen turns into amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. They form in the muscles, the lungs, kidneys, and other areas of the body.

Squirrels can sustain themselves by the nutrients from their muscles. During the hibernation period, nitrogen would normally end up in ammonia, which could build up to potentially deadly levels. With squirrels, this is a different story. Squirrels can incorporate that nitrogen into new molecules, instead.

Other studies have found that the microbiome living inside animals, also plays a big part in the process off recycling nitrogen while animals hibernate.

The breakdown of proteins typically creates urea, a nitrogen-containing chemical that gets excreted. Microbes can scavenge that urea and then eventually release its nitrogen back into the bloodstream of the animals. This is completely different from these squirrels. The muscles being broken down by the Arctic squirrels are recycled directly back into the amino acids. The microbiome is not that important as they are for other hibernating animals when it comes to the Arctic squirrel.

The research found by researchers can actually help us as humans in the future. Biochemists use these studies to help them understand the future of our medicines.

Animals like these squirrels are far more resistant to the harm that can be fatal to us humans. They are resistant to things that can result when our organs do not receive the necessary blood flow and oxygen.

In harnessing hibernation-like approaches, we could find information that can be very advantageous for humans. It could be advantageous in cases where a slower metabolism would be useful. This could be useful in situations such as routine surgeries or long voyages in space.

There is a lot we can learn from mother earth and other species. As humans, we should cherish nature and keep it safe for the future.