Thursday, February 21, 2013

How do YOU Survive the Cold?

Sub-zero snow squeaks and crunches loudly underfoot, frost gathers on all the windows, and the sharp air cuts deep into our lungs. We all deal with the bone-chilling cold of January in different ways. Some of us skedaddle to warmer climes, some of us burrow in to a pile of comfy quilts, some of us just grin and bear it, and others snap into skis and thrive.

It is no different in the natural world. Monarch butterflies, colorful warblers, and green darner dragonflies high-tail it south for the winter. They cannot tolerate the cold, not to mention freezing solid, so their strategy is cold avoidance.

Bears, raccoons, chipmunks, and skunks snuggle into burrows and go into hibernation (a long deep sleep) or torpor (a series of long naps). Their “comfy quilts” take the form of thick fur and layers of insulating fat. Their lowered metabolisms mimic those glowing coals in your woodstove, just waiting for a blast of spring air to fan the flames back to life.

The vast majority of northern animals just grin and bear it, in my opinion. Take for example my chickadee neighbors. On -17 degree mornings they fluff up their down jackets and go about their seed-eating business with a resolute cheer. I would not say they love it, though, since the early love songs I heard during the last thaw have been silenced by the frigid stillness.

The animals that truly thrive are those who have adapted so well to cold and snowy winters that it gives them an advantage over competitors. Skiers, for one, stay in shape while bikers and runners may lag. Lynx can outcompete bobcats and fishers for food by walking easily on top of deep snow.  Snowshoe hares go where mere cottontails would flounder. With long legs and thick hair, moose can exploit harsh, remote, habitats far out of the reach of shorter-legged deer.

It is easy for us relate to mammalian strategies for winter survival, but when you look at the insect crowd, things start to get a little crazy. Insects can use any of the methods mentioned above to survive the winter, but they do not have the advantage of an internal furnace to keep them warm. In order to hibernate, insects must either tolerate being frozen, or avoid it.

Next week we will take a look at how two common invertebrates survive the winter. Until then – stay warm through whichever strategy works best for you!

For over 44 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. The current exhibit, STAR POWER: Energy from the Sun, opened in May 2012 and will remain open until April, 2013.

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