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Why we’re seeing so many fat squirrels this winter

Have you noticed that squirrels are looking a bit thick around the middle this winter? Don’t worry, it’s not your eyes playing tricks on you — they are in fact larger this year than they’ve ever been before.

Just last week I was walking through a park and saw one of these chunky fellows almost fall out of a tree, seemingly because he was not used to jumping from branch to branch with extra weight. And apparently this is not just a northeastern phenomenon. Squirrels across the Northern Hemisphere seem to be transforming into, shall we say, full-bodied fluff balls this year.

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So why is this fattening happening? Are they simply getting more adept at stealing garbage from the local fast-food establishments? Or slacking off in their daily exercise routines, as so many of us tend to do in the winter months? Sadly no — the reason is far less funny and more troubling.

According to David Sugarman, a senior researcher at the Ontario Science Centre, the recent squirrel weight problem has to do with — you guessed it — climate change. “We have had a really warm November,” Sugarman told Metro News Canada. “Naturally, if you’re an animal that’s got to make it through the winter with little or no food, you want to pack in as much as fat as possible.” What he means is, because it’s been unseasonably warm this fall/winter, squirrels’ natural food supplies have stuck around much longer than they usually do.

Squirrels, unlike other outdoor mammals, don’t hibernate in the wintertime but instead rely on their fat reserves to stay warm. Of course, nobody told them it was going to be a warmer winter, so they simply kept storing away more and more nuts, fruits, vegetables and fungi, until their little bodies were packed to the gills.

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Now, while I find these fat squirrels incredibly adorable, the reason behind the trend is startling. Scientists just reported that 2015 was the hottest year on record, and soon we will be noticing other environmental side effects that aren’t nearly as cute. However, this particular effect doesn’t appear to be doing much harm at the moment. Sugarman says, “If the squirrel were able to stay chubby all year round, it might decrease its longevity,” because it would be much slower and less nimble. But he believes that when the snow comes, the squirrels will remember what they were fattening up for in the first place.

Thankfully it looks like he’s right, considering the giant winter storm making its way up the East Coast will soon jolt the chubby little squirrels back to reality. Let’s hope these fat little fluff balls are still small enough to make it inside a hollow tree before it hits.

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