Animals adapt to cold, short days |

Animals adapt to cold, short days

Tom Wiesen

My friend Greg Dennis and I were relaxing over some cold beer by a warm fire a few nights ago, and we were both commenting on the low light and the shortest days of the year. We talked about the annual ritual of a winter solstice bonfire, an age-old tradition bringing light and warmth to the year’s darkest days.We also talked about how wouldn’t it be most excellent if global warming somehow affected our local snowfall in a positive way. How about a shorter more intense winter with snowfalls over 12-inches frequently blanketing our haven? And then there’s the fabulous spring runoff. Another nip.Quantum physics demonstrates that if enough minds in one area think alike, they can affect the future, even snowfall levels. This could be a perfect local adaptation to combat the supposed drying climate. This notion of collective thought brings more depth to the phrase, “Think snow.””But how do the animals cope with the cold temperatures”, Greg asked? And I had to think a bit because no two animal species deal with the cold exactly alike. Think about how each of us as individuals cope with feeling the cold – some of us put on a hat, some a fleece sweater, others draw a hot bath, while still others build a fire. Unlike life inside of our modern homes, wild animals can’t reach for the thermostat to warm up their environment. They must adapt and find ways to stay warm. Take elk for instance, you almost always see them during the day laying down in the sun, or browsing a sunny batch of shrubs in a slow lazy style. Notice how the elk are in conservation mode. They purposely try to use as little energy as possible to ensure they will have the nutritional fat reserves to hold them until spring. The elk, like us, know from practical experience that standing in the sun makes quite a difference compared to the cold shade. Look for bighorn sheep and mule deer in the sun as well – especially at sunrise and sunset.Would you hibernate? We all have heard of how if you get stranded out at night in the winter, you’re supposed dig down into the snow and make a cave and get in. It is true that it is warmer in the snow or even underground compared to the cold air temperatures above. Lots of animals use burrows, dens or sheltered areas to hole up during times of severe weather. This is true of coyotes, fox, squirrels, rabbits, weasels, bears and porcupines. Ptarmigans will fly and dive headfirst into fluffy snow to hollow out little snowcaves.Again, if you were stranded and there were several people in your party, you might choose to huddle together, taking turns on the leeward side away from the wind. Elk will often stand and lay close, and flocking birds will also perch side by side to share body heat. Tiny nuthatches are known to pack more than 30 birds into a tree cavity on a cold winter night.What about sleeping through winter? True hibernators are pre-programmed to hit the pillow in autumn and wake up in the spring. Examples include marmots and ground squirrels who cannot wake up even if they had too. In fact they are so far from consciousness that they don’t even roll over the entire time they are in hibernation.Compare true hibernators to animals that go torpid. The main difference is that animals in torpor are able to arouse their consciousness and go out and forage when temperatures warm up. Length of torpor varies from species to species. Some songbirds may go torpid while its dark, and re-start in the morning when they can continue foraging. Porcupines may go into a protected den for a few weeks at a time if weather is too extreme. Bears can wake up and forage in the early spring, and then doze off again until foraging conditions improve later in the spring.So it seems that everyone deals with the cold a bit differently. If you could choose, would you go torpid and sleep the toughest part of winter away? Of course not, because then you’d miss a bunch of great powder days. So in the meantime, “Think Snow”.Tom Wiesen and his wife Tanya are the owners and lead guides of Trailwise Guides; a year-round Vail Valley guide service specializing in providing quality experiences in the backcountry. Private snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and wildlife watching outings are now offered daily. Contact Trailwise Guides at 827-5363.Vail, Colorado

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