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November 10, 2014

The Arctic ground squirrel sheds light on circadian rhythms

This species' ability to adapt to constant daylight may ultimately help answer questions about human sleep disorders and other health problems

The Arctic ground squirrel has developed highly specialized adaptations to extreme environments, and it has a lot to teach us about circadian rhythms and biological clocks. This species maintains circadian rhythms throughout the Arctic summer, despite the almost ceaseless daylight during this period. The squirrels' body clocks have evolved to work just fine without the help of the day/night cycle, which is so important to other animals--like humans.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), physiological ecologist Cory Williams of the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and a team of researchers traveled to the Toolik Field Station in northern Alaska to study the Arctic ground squirrel on its home turf. Part of the field research involves switching up light and temperature for the squirrels, essentially giving them a case of jet leg to gage their reaction.

Back in Anchorage, environmental physiologist Loren Buck works with squirrels in his lab year-round. Buck says body clock disruptions are linked to many human ailments--seasonal affective disorder, obesity, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer's, even cancer. And, those are good reasons to look into how an animal like the Arctic ground squirrel so finely tunes its body rhythms.

This research is being conducted in collaboration with a team of scientists at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

The research in this episode is supported by NSF award #1147187, Collaborative Research: Persistence, entrainment and function of circadian rhythms in Arctic ground squirrels.

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Kate Tobin, Science Nation Producer

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.