Ground Squirrels and the Greening Arctic

An Arctic ground squirrel on the tundra.
A ground squirrel in the Arctic tundra.

How will the greening of the Arctic affect an important prey species and disturbance agent? Vegetation effects on arctic ground squirrels


Increases in terrestrial primary productivity across the Arctic and northern alpine ecosystems are leading to altered vegetation composition and stature. Changes in vegetation stature may affect predator-prey interactions via changes in the prey's ability to detect predators, changes in predation pressure, predator identity and predator foraging strategy. Changes in productivity and vegetation composition may also affect herbivores via effects on forage availability and quality. We investigated if height-dependent effects of forage and non-forage vegetation determine burrowing extent and activity of arctic ground squirrels (Urocitellus parryii). We collected data on burrow networks and activity of arctic ground squirrels across long-term vegetation monitoring sites in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska. The implications of height-specific cover of potential forage and non-forage vegetation on burrowing behaviour and habitat suitability for arctic ground squirrels were investigated using hierarchical Bayesian modelling. Increased cover of forbs was associated with more burrows and burrow systems, and higher activity of systems, for all forb heights. No other potential forage functional group was related to burrow distribution and activity. In contrast, height-dependent negative effects of non-forage vegetation were observed, with cover over 50-cm height negatively affecting the number of burrows, systems and system activity. Our results demonstrate that increases in vegetation productivity have dual, potentially counteracting effects on arctic ground squirrels via changes in forage and vegetation stature. Importantly, increases in tall-growing woody vegetation (shrubs and trees) have clear negative effects, whereas increases in forb should benefit arctic ground squirrels.

Wheeler, H.C., J. D. Chipperfield, C. Roland, and J. C. Svenning. 2015. How will the greening of the Arctic affect a common ecosystem engineer? Vegetation effects on burrowing networks and activity of arctic ground squirrels. Oecologia 178(3):915-929.