(CNN) — If you see a squirrel upside down, you might be worried about the creature’s well-being. But don’t worry: as officials say, it’s just “splash,” and it’s perfectly healthy.
The term splooting exploded on the internet shortly after the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation posted about the behavior on Twitter.
“If you see a squirrel lying down like this, don’t worry; okay,” the department wrote on Twitter alongside an image of a squirrel stretching its limbs. “On hot days, squirrels keep cool by hopping (stretching) on cool surfaces to reduce body heat. It is sometimes called heat discharge.”
Charlotte Devitz, a biologist and doctoral student studying squirrel behavior at the University of Minnesota, told CNN that she first noticed squirrels squirting while researching squirrels for her master’s degree.
“At that time I was not very familiar with the term. We just call it ‘failure’ behavior,” he said. “I thought it was super cute. For a long time I tried to find published articles on what this behavior was, but I did not have much success.
Devitz says splashes seem more common among larger, furry squirrel species, like gray squirrels and fox squirrels. This fits with the scientific explanation for why squirrels splash: It helps them cope with the heat, according to Devitz.
The more scientific name for splooting is “heat dump,” Devitz said. “The squirrel puts as much of its body surface as possible in contact with a cooler surface, often on concrete or pavement that has been in the shade.”
“We’ve had pretty record heat this summer, so this behavior has been very, very prominent,” he said.
Splooting is a “good way to thermoregulate,” especially since squirrels don’t lose a lot of body heat by sweating, Devitz said. The behavior, he said, “is also seen in other mammals. It has gained a lot of visibility because a lot of people see it and get worried when they see squirrels upside down.”
Splashes can be especially common in cities like New York because of the way urban areas trap heat, Devitz says.
“It’s quite possible that there is a higher incidence of this type of behavior in squirrels found in urban areas, simply because they need more ways to cool off,” he said.
“With climate change,” Devitz said, “overall temperatures are rising. We’re seeing more of these heat spikes, more drought. I think it’s very possible that this behavior is becoming more prominent and more necessary for the squirrel.”
Devitz points out that the cooling benefits of splooting are balanced against the potential risks the squirrels face from predators. The prone posture “puts them in a somewhat vulnerable position” where predators can put them in harm’s way, she said.