Among other peculiar trends encountered on the internet lately, this winter we had the joy of being inundated with photos of fat squirrels. Squirrels in snow, squirrels stuck in bird-feeders, squirrels stealing avocados. Name it, and there’s a fat squirrel doing it!
As you have probably noticed, however, the onslaught of fluffy animal photos is nothing new. So what more do these snaps of fat squirrels have to offer?
Apparently, with the right amount of digging, these amusing squirrel snapshots can actually give us insight into current affairs – besides providing an example of 21st century humour.
In a nutshell:
The exceptionally warm weather in Europe and North America meant more time and more food for squirrels to fatten up in preparation for the winter. As winter was in no hurry to arrive, the squirrels were in no hurry to hibernate either, hence their extended outdoor appearances. And the final ingredient: snap-happy people with smartphones capturing the moment and posting it for the world to see.
Last December was the warmest December on record for the UK and for much of the east coast of the USA (‘on record’ meaning since people started recording the climate about 150 years ago, and not the entire history of the Earth). Of course, global warming, you might think. And while climate change does play an important role, recurring weather patterns also contributed to the unusually warm spell: El Niño and the Arctic Oscillation.
We are currently in the midst of an El Niño event, which means that we are in the warm phase of a temperature cycle affecting the Pacific Ocean. This pattern affects the Atlantic Ocean through remote mechanisms (we can leave that for another day) affecting the regions with which we are concerned. The present El Niño event is considered extreme, with the intensified effects likely correlated to climate change.
The Arctic Oscillation is a weather index related to sea level pressure which primarily affects Europe and North America. In its current positive state, it traps cold air near the polar circle, preventing it from spreading southward, giving us the warmer weather experienced in December.
The warmer weather conditions influenced the timing of reproductive cycles for many plants, resulting in spring daffodils appearing in London and cherry trees blossoming in Washington, D.C., months before their expected arrival date. This also affected acorn production, which experienced a boom, among other trees which still had nuts on them well into December.
As for the squirrels themselves, there is some debate around whether they are fatter, merely fluffier, or actually just the same as usual. And although people like to joke about them being extra-chubby this winter, gaining an extra layer of fat as winter approaches seems not to be out of the ordinary. Gaining weight serves both as an energy store for times of scarcity, and as insulation, helping squirrels get through harsh winter weather regardless of whether they go into hibernation.
Nevertheless, there are – undeniably – more photos of fat squirrels than ever before, and it is reasonable to settle on attributing this condition to the presence of people.
On the one hand, you have squirrels which, as omnivores, will eat practically anything. On the other, you have people either leaving food lying around (e.g. over-filled park or campus bins, picnic leftovers) or intentionally feeding the cute critters in their back yards. This combination generally gives rise to a host of fairly docile squirrels interacting with overexcited humans who will not miss the chance to document the occasion. And with the prevalence of camera-phones in everyone’s pocket, serendipitous sightings such as these are more often captured than not.
This ability of anyone to become an observer and recorder is increasingly being used in ‘citizen science’ projects in fields ranging from galaxy research to ecology to protein folding! And, yes, the squirrel counterpart does exist in the aptly named Project Squirrel, based in Illinois.
So the fat squirrels are fat, maybe a little fatter than usual, but probably just more extroverted and less camera-shy. And a brief climatology lesson can sort of explain why. Throw in some ecology, and you’re pretty much covered.
But the aspect I found most interesting and most significant, and the message I hope has been conveyed, was the one I least expected: question the evidence!
Alexia Karageorgis has an interest in exploring human relations to environmental issues. She graduated from the University of Oxford with a Geography BA, and after several nature conservation volunteering escapades, she decided to revert back to the student life. She is currently following the Science Communication and Public Engagement MSc at the University of Edinburgh while nurturing her new interest in British Sign Language.