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8 May, 2002

Guest Appearances

We had quite a bit of lab work to do today, so rather than going over the lab procedures with this entry, I wanted to introduce you to our fourth team member and a couple of the other people working here at Toolik.

The first introduction is for Dr. Brian Barnes. Brian is a professor with the Institute of Arctic Biology at The University of Alaska-Fairbanks. In fact Brian is currently the interim director of the institute. In addition to his duties at the university, Brian is the science director of the Toolik Lake research facility. Brian started his academic career with a bachelor's degree from the University of California-Riverside. Brian then became

Dr. Barnes after completing graduate work at the University of Washington. Brian has been with the University of Alaska for the past fifteen years.

The primary emphasis or Dr. Barnes' lab is the adaptation of animals to arctic conditions. The subjects of study range from cold tolerance of small insects to the hibernation patterns of grizzly bears. Here at Toolik Lake, our project with insect adaptations runs side by side with a study of arctic ground squirrels.

Following the study of the ground squirrels was a most interesting part of the day today. The study is looking at many aspects of hibernation and behavior in the squirrels that might be different from their non-polar cousins. This includes food storage for colder months, weight gain, physiological changes, fur density, reproductive status and above ground vs. below ground behaviors. The wide range of the study provides research work for two graduate students and one undergraduate as well as Dr. Barnes. The graduate student currently here in Toolik is Tim Martin. Tim came to Alaska from southern California to get a change of scenery and is working on his Master's Degree. Today, Tim became one of my heroes. Since I arrived in Toolik, I have been attempting the photograph a squirrel that lives right outside our lab trailer. Every time I get within photo range, she quickly ducks back into her den under the rocks. This little squirrel has been taunting me like this for days. Today, Tim caught the squirrel in a live trap and brought her in. As I was introduced to my tormentor, I learned that her study name is Dash. She is a very healthy reproductive female arctic ground squirrel.

A portion of the study requires that local squirrels be periodically trapped and measured for health and reproductive status. At the time they are brought in, they are anesthetized, fitted with a small radio collar and marked with a hair dye for identification (Tim uses Clairol Nice & Easy). With the radio collar, their movements above and below ground can be studied throughout the year. Tim was able to trap and check three squirrels today. One required a new collar and all were healthy. There are approximately 30 squirrels currently being tracked around Toolik Lake. Some of the findings so far include some interesting results with the squirrels' temperature sensitivities. The squirrels seem to have as great a need for their burrows in warm temperatures as well as cold. Squirrels only leave their burrows within a given range. As soon as the air temperatures get slightly too warm or slightly too cold, they head right back into their dens for the relatively moderate temperatures of the underground.

One aspect of the study that fascinates me is an idea that young squirrels can delay sexual maturation if they do not at an acceptable weight in the early spring. Rather than using energy for the reproductive process, these squirrels, called "red shirts" concentrate on becoming big and healthy and ready to reproduce in the following year. The idea that temperatures and body mass can control hormone regulation has many interesting application.

Later in the day, today, I was also introduced to the research of Dr. Steve Oberbauer of Florida International University. Steve studies the adaptations of plants to extreme environmental conditions. We are currently running some of Dr. Oberbauer's plants through our lab to check for antifreeze proteins. Steve's research here at Toolik has shown that plants have the ability to photosynthesize even under a layer of snow. Some light passes through the snow up to a depth of about 20 cm. In the arctic environment it can be a he advantage if plants can begin to produce energy for growth even before the snow cover is gone. An early jump on spring growth as the snow begins to melt can make an enormous difference for a plant's long-term survival.

These two research projects are just examples of how much I've been learning with this program. With so much fascinating work going on while the camp is barely open, I cannot imagine how much amazing work goes on here during peak research times in the summer.

Tomorrow, we head back south (if the roads allow) and stop to collect insects near the town of Wiseman. Tomorrow will be another new experience and another day of learning something new.

This is Dash. The squirrel that has been taunting me for days. --

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