To Survive Extreme Heat, Squirrels Go ‘Sploot’

To Survive Extreme Heat, Squirrels Go ‘Sploot’

When does a squirrel become a pancake? Answer: Apparently, when the world becomes a griddle. It’s officially sweat season for humans in the U.S., which means it’s sploot season for squirrels. And if you don’t know what that means, keep reading.

Parts of 17 U.S. states are under active heat advisories and warnings as of Friday morning, according to the National Weather Service, encompassing more than 100 million people. From California to Nebraska to Alabama, it is hot. And if humans are hot, you can bet wildlife is, too.

Photos of squirrels lying flat on the ground, limbs stretched wide, are popping up on social media — along with local and national news stories about the phenomenon. But no, the bushy-tailed rodents aren’t melting en masse: they’re splooting. The term is a relatively new word, coined in the fires of internet memespeak, that describes the animal behaviour of spreading out as wide as possible across a surface.

Sometimes animals, like dogs and cats, sploot to stretch. But in high temps, it’s also a scientifically backed strategy for cooling down. Squirrels are commonly observed splooting on shaded pavement, rocks, tree limbs, soil, and even fire-escapes when temperatures rise. By increasing their body’s surface area in contact with an (ideally, relatively cool) base, the squirrels are dissipating all that built up heat and sending it elsewhere. In fact, the more technical term for the behaviour is “heat dumping.”

Other mammals have been known to sploot in the summertime swelter too. Bears have been caught on camera spreading out, as tweeted by the National Park Service. Even koalas do it, albeit in their own, arboreal way.

Most other animals can’t sweat as freely as humans can. Aside from a select group of fellow primates (and horses), most fur-covered mammals, squirrels included, only have sweat glands on their feet. So critters have to get creative to beat the heat. Some animals like wolves, birds, and even reptiles will pant to evaporate moisture. Others roll in mud or puddles. Some hide out underground. Splooting is part of the animal kingdom’s compendium of cooldown strategies.

But even splooting might have its limits, as climate change makes extreme heat the norm. “There’s only so much one avenue of heat loss can do,” Andrea Rummel, and animal physiologist at Rice University, told National Public Radio. Just as there’s a temperature where sweating becomes ineffective, there’s a threshold on the thermometer where splooting might not be enough to compensate. “For every kind of thermal regulatory mechanism, there is a point at which it doesn’t work anymore, and that depends on environmental temperature,” Rummel explained.

Splooting, as cute as it might look, really communicates that squirrels are heat-stressed. Climate change is poised to increase that burned on their tiny shoulders.

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