As the summer winds down and it gets cooler throughout the valley, there is only one thing on my mind - when is it going to snow? For some, snow means a harder commute to work; for others, it means excitement for the coming ski season, and for other animals of this valley, it means a change. Some change color, while others change habitat.
Weasels are one of those animals that have to adapt once snow begins to fall. Their biggest change is that they lose all pigment in their fur. Feathers and fur are like human hair and fingernails - they are actually dead tissue. The fur is attached to the animal, but the animal can do nothing to alter the fur's composition. Consequently, a bird or mammal has to produce a whole new coat of fur or feathers in order to change color. In addition to the weasel, other animals in the mountains that do this are the ptarmigan and the snowshoe hare. The white fur or feather coat serves a dual purpose of warmth and camouflage. If dark colors absorb heat and white reflects it, how is it possible that a white coat provides warmth? The answer is in the air ... that is, the answer is the air.
It is not the color white that gives the winter feathers of the ptarmigan or the white hair of the weasel their extra-warming quality. Rather, white is the absence of pigment, and the cells in white hair and feathers, empty of pigment, are filled with air. This provides thermal insulation and keeps animals warmer in the winter months.
The first snowfall marks the start of an integral time for our ecosystem. Snow can provide shelter, heat and water to living organisms. Lack of snow has really impacted the plants and animals of the valley. When the first snowfall comes around, you often first see a change in the aspen trees of the area. Early snowstorms may do extensive damage to aspen trees. Limbs break; sapling- to pole-sized trees bend to the ground and are sometimes uprooted by driving wind and snow.
But snowfall isn't always bad, and snow also provides important habitat for small mammals, such as pocket gophers. When snow arrives, pocket gophers add a third group of tunnels to their tunnel systems. They fill their snow tunnels with soil excavated in the winter. These tubes of soil remain after the snow melts, leaving telltale evidence of these animals in the mountain meadows long into the spring.
Across Colorado, the snowpack from last year was 68 percent below normal. It was one of the smallest snow accumulations of the past 30 years. This winter may be different, and many species of animals are hoping it is. Without a big snowpack, animals are more at risk. The snow cover provides important protection. These animals are susceptible to attack from predators, and their feeding grounds are greatly limited due to changing seasons. The ptarmigan, weasel and snowshoe hare are at a greater disadvantage when there isn't snow falling in the area. Lack of snowfall will cause their white coat to stick out, and they will be more vulnerable to predators.
Snowfall in the valley is a treat for people who come to ski and snowboard. We have to remember that snowfall impacts not only us but also every living creature in the Eagle Valley. So next time you are chipping ice and snow off your windshield, stop and think about the other creatures that share our mountain home and how important the snow is for their survival.
Melanie Morone is a naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center. In her spare time she likes to ski, hike and cheer the Penn State Nittany Lions to victory.