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Study finds that Arctic ground squirrels play a large role in climate change

Cheryl Santa Maria
Digital Reporter

Wednesday, December 17, 2014, 3:31 PM - A new study out of the University of Wisconsin reveals that Arctic ground squirrels play a large role in climate change by speeding up the release of greenhouses gases from permafrost.

Researchers say the findings underscore the large role wildlife has on the environment.

Arctic permafrost covers about a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere and holds a large amount of carbon that has been accumulating for tens of thousands of years.

"Right now the carbon storage is about 1,500 petagrams (1,500 billion tonnes)," Dr. Sue Natali of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts told the BBC. "To put that in perspective, that's about twice as much as is contained in the atmosphere."

Dr. Natali says this is one of the first times a study has looked at the impact animals can have on the permafrost cycle. For the study, Dr. Natali and her colleague Nigel Golden travelled to Siberia to study the burrows of Arctic ground squirrels.

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"They are soil engineers," Dr. Natali told the BBC.

"They break down the soil when they are digging their burrows, they mix the top layer with the bottom layer, they are bringing oxygen to the soil and they are fertilizing the soil with their urine and their faeces." The pair discovered the squirrels burrows were warmer than the ground around it.

It was discovered that the squirrels are adding nitrogen to the ground through their waste, negatively impacting the environment.

"If ground squirrels are adding nitrogen to an area - and that area doesn't have plants because they dug them up - this may result in increased loss of carbon from the system," Dr. Natali said -- leading the team to conclude the animals are playing a larger role in the permafrost carbon cycle that they had previously thought.

Now, researchers plan to assess how other animal species are contributing to climate change, if at all.


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