Wild World: Waking Up Early

Rising temperatures are nudging animals out of hibernation and into peril

By Alisa Opar

Illustration by Josh Cochran

Because hibernation is such a complex process, some scientists, such as Blumstein, don’t attribute early emergence entirely to climate change. “Climate is clearly an important part,” he says, but social factors could also be important. For instance, getting up early could be a way to get a head start in competing for a mate. “I’m trying to tease out how important climate is versus social factors.”

To Inouye, “Global warming is the most reasonable hypothesis.” Inouye says he wouldn’t be surprised if rising temperatures are affecting marmots in mountainous regions across the globe.

As for other species, scientists are already seeing shifts. Ground squirrels are hibernating at higher elevations every year, says Kenneth Storey, a biochemist at Carleton University. In addition to seeking higher, colder climes, hibernators will also move to higher latitudes. Wood frogs that Storey studies, for example, currently extend from South Carolina to northern Canada. The amphibians are obligate hibernators—they must dig into the earth and freeze solid to survive. Their distribution will creep northward as permafrost melts and the region becomes habitable and snowfall in the south declines.

The same will hold true for other species, too, according to Storey. “Some animals will make out like bandits,” he says, “just not those with a southern drawl.”

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Issue 25

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