Vail’s Curious Nature: Warming throws off nature’s alarm clock |

Vail’s Curious Nature: Warming throws off nature’s alarm clock

Dale Versteegen
Curious Nature
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the Vail DailyDale Versteegen is a naturalist and educator at Gore Range Natural Science School

VAIL, Colorado –Call it the circle of life or the rhythm of the universe – the earth and all of its creatures are constantly immersed in cycles. Beings are born, age and die. The sun rises and sets. The seasons change.

Some cycles happen over vast periods of time while others appear to be very short. In either case, there are important cues that control the timing and rate of each stage. In our human life these cues can change as we age – a baby cries to indicate hunger, hormones signal the body to mature, and the calendar and the clock can govern the life of an adult.

Animal cycles depend on natural cues that are tangled in the seasons like the position of the sun or the length of sunlight on a given day. These signs can be subtle, but they actually control hormone levels and signal behavioral and physiological changes in animals, such as the start or end of the breeding season, migration and hibernation patterns, and the thickness of the coat.

For example, animals know spring has arrived as the earth warms with the sun that is directly overhead. The climbing temperatures encourages yellow-bellied marmots and black bears to wake up. As the days start getting a little longer, chipmunks and ground squirrels will periodically check snow depth to determine when to exit hibernation dens and begin foraging for food.

For both humans and animals, these cues are necessary for healthy functioning and survival. Think about what happens when an alarm clock fails. Perhaps it was meant to wake up a bus driver who is now running late, so people may not make it to school, work or a variety of other commitments. These effects can ripple through a community, disrupting the normal flow of events. Your favorite coffee shop may not open early enough for you to buy a coffee on the way to work, making you tired and impacting your performance.

In the natural world, cues that animals rely on are slowly changing though as the Earth seems to be locked in a warming trend with weather patterns that are becoming more extreme. Research is showing that marmots and bears are awakening earlier and struggling to find food.

This can truly impact the overall health of a forest. For example, the seeds of many native plant species ingested by bears are actually more likely to germinate after passing through the digestive track than those that don’t. If bears are awakening before the berries filled with seeds are ready, the rate of seed dispersal slows down, altering the biodiversity of a forest. As the world climate changes, ecosystems will be impacted by organisms that are late, early or simple never arrive at work.

Do set your alarms tomorrow as your employer is depending on you. And remember that nature is too.

The Gore Range Natural Science School’s Curious Nature column appears Mondays in the Vail Daily and on Dale Versteegen is a naturalist and educator at Gore Range Natural Science School. Catch him Monday mornings on TV8 where he teaches viewers what’s happening in nature this week. (

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