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What does ‘splooting’ mean? And why are squirrels doing it?

A squirrel sploots on cold concrete during a hot day in Houston in August 2011. (Eric Kayne/Getty Images)

People strolling through New York City’s parks may be stopped in their tracks this summer by a squirrel sprawled out, face down, limbs outstretched and lying still. Don’t be alarmed, says the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. They’re just “splooting.”

A tweet by the parks agency earlier this week went viral online, confusing and delighting people in equal measure, after it advised: “If you see a squirrel lying down like this, don’t worry; it’s just fine.” It added that “on hot days, squirrels keep cool by splooting (stretching out) on cool surfaces to reduce body heat. It is sometimes referred to as heat dumping.”

That sparked a rush of queries about what “splooting” means. But the word, of unknown origin, has been swirling around the internet for some time, popular among pet owners delighted at the sight of their dog or cat stretching out their hind legs in an amusing posture.

Veterinarians and animal experts believe the animals assume the pose to beat the heat, extending their surface area to cool down.

Both the word and the action have generated interest online — although the word has yet to be featured in all the major dictionaries.

When your correspondent, sitting comfortably in an air-conditioned office, looked up “splooting” online in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the response yielded no results: “The word you’ve entered isn’t in the dictionary.”

Another attempt, this time in Britain’s Collins English Dictionary, produced a brief entry for “splooting,” which it described as British English.

“VERB (intransitive): (of an animal) to lie flat on the stomach with the hind legs stretched out behind the body."

The entry adds, helpfully, that the word’s origin is probably 21st-century slang “perhaps altered from splat.”

Fiona McPherson, a lexicographer at the Oxford English Dictionary, told The Washington Post on Friday: “Sploot is a relatively recent coinage” and has not yet been included in the famed dictionary, although it is “tracking” the word.

“Etymologically, it may be a variant of splat, but I have also seen suggestions that it is a blend of splay and scoot,” she wrote in an email. “It has been quite closely associated with dogs, notably corgis,” but can apply to most animals capable of splooting.

McPherson, a senior editor of new words responsible for adding “amazeballs” to the dictionary, said the act may have become more noticeable in the recent warm weather that many are experiencing, and the word has probably gained popularity amid internet meme culture.

Phonetician John Harris said that while several internet sources suggested the word was derived from “split” or “splat,” he considers this “unlikely” because “there are no regular sound changes in English that would take you from either of these words to sploot.” However, the emeritus professor of linguistics at University College London mused that it could instead be a portmanteau involving the first part of “splay” and the last part of “cute.”

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The tweet by the parks agency in New York, where temperatures have soared this summer, prompted others to share images online of their pets splooting.

“Splooting squirrels are adorable,” tweeted one individual in response. Another wrote: “Splooting!! Love that word.. thanks!”

According to the Gilbertsville Veterinary Hospital about 40 miles northeast of Philadelphia, a number of animals can showcase a variety of splooting positions depending on their flexibility.

The “Classic Sploot,” it says on its website, is where one leg remains beneath the body while the other leg is kicked back. In the “Side Sploot,” one leg is tucked under the body while the other is kicked out to the side. Then there is the “Full Sploot,” in which the animals kicks both legs behind the body, exhibiting a full-body stretch.

Splooting can be good for animals’ muscles and hips as part of a stretch, it adds, and the posture also lets them cool down by pressing their bellies on cold surfaces.

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In the United Kingdom, the phenomenon is known more commonly as “pancaking,” squirrel expert Natalia Doran told The Post. “But we’re speaking about the same body position. We see it all the time in our rescue squirrels,” she said.

Doran runs Urban Squirrels, a London-based rescue and advocacy group that helps injured and orphaned squirrels.

“That really spread-eagling position is not a worry — they’re just cooling themselves,” she said. “However lethargic and immobile they look, they’re fine.”

By contrast, if a squirrel appears to be lying still and on its side, that could indicate it is unwell, and if it is curled up in a tight ball position, it could be cold, Doran added.

Although the splooting position may be a “cute” way for squirrels to cool themselves, she cautioned that in the longer term, climate change is a serious concern and could hurt the species in Britain and elsewhere.

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Jackie Foott of the British Red Squirrel forum, which works to conserve the minority breed, agreed that the pose is a common sight among the species and other animals.

“All animals will do it. They’ll go to a shady place and lay out flat,” she told The Post. “The obvious thing is they’re increasing the surface of their body so that the excess heat can disperse.”

The majority of squirrels in New York’s parks are eastern gray squirrels. Mostly active in the daytime, they can be seen twitching and darting around for nuts, seeds and berries, using their excellent sense of smell.

The mammals can grow between nine and 12 inches long and weigh around 20 ounces. They commonly reside in a “drey,” a type of nest made of leaves. They stay in small family groups and live about three to five years in the city or up to 10 years in rural settings.

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Splooting can also occur among young birds, according to the New York parks service, such as the “juvenile red-tailed hawk,” known to demonstrate a “full sploot at times.”

“However, birds do not usually lie down as it leaves them vulnerable,” it added. “Instead, they will perch and fluff their feathers and hold out their wings to allow air to flow through and cool off.”

The U.S. National Park Service also said the hot weather has given rise to “Sploot Season,” and it encouraged its four-legged inhabitants this summer, “Sploot like nobody’s watching.”

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