SciSun: In with the New   Leave a comment

At the start of each New Year (Happy 2015!), the imminent hour is often depicted as a little baby full of potential, while the year past is an old man ready for rest (which describes a really short lifetime, if you think about it). But what about wildlife in the new year – what changes to they take on, as we move from one year to another? On December 31st animals don’t count the minutes to midnight or throw confetti into the air (usually); but in the depths of winter, how do wildlife celebrate – or at least survive – the season?

For most animals, winter is a difficult time. There’s the frosty temperatures; food can be scarce; and failure to plan ahead could lead to limited choices for shelter. Water is often frozen, and predators are looking for an easy meal. We know some wildlife hibernate – deep sleep where body systems slow down and it takes very little energy to survive; other animals migrate from colder, to warmer climates; and particularly reptiles, amphibians and insects snuggle down into their burrows or other homes, sitting out the winter and waiting for Spring. But some wildlife just continue on their daily activities through all but the most severe climate. Some mammals such as Brown Bear (Ursus arctos), American Bison (Bison bison), and Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus) ‘bulk up’ in the Autumn, eating as much as possible which provides energy to grow dense, thick coats, build up muscle, and storing any extra energy as fat which insulates and provides emergency nutrition if winter gets really tough. The Great Grey Owl (Strix nebulosa) has dense feathers that shed snow and insulate the body; he also sports a fashionable set of ‘snow pants’ comprised of overlapping layers of feathers that cover his legs and tops of his feet. Because no one likes cold feet. The Mallard Duck (Anas platyrhynchos) enjoys the unique advantage of counter-current circulation (well, unique among many waterfowl, that is), which is a system of inter-connected veins that carry cold blood from the extremities – for a duck, that’s usually the feet – toward the heart, and warm blood from the heart back to the feet. So all those ducks swimming in frigid water or walking on the ice really aren’t struggling, they’re probably just fine. They just look like they’re suffering so we’ll throw them a handful of duck food.

“Are you certain the white is helping us blend in?”  “Oh sure, just stay still and it's like we're invisible. It'll even be better once the snow comes over here!”

“Are you sure the white is helping us blend in?” “Oh sure, just stay still and it’s like we’re invisible. It’ll even be better once the snow comes over here!”

Of all the winter adaptations, however, perhaps the most spectacular are animals that change color for each season – standard browns and greys in the warmer months, and stealthy shades of white for winter. Sometimes referred to as photoperiodic transformation, it’s really just a way some animals have evolved to continue on their daily activities without being noticed: Arctic Fox (Vulpes lagopus); Ermine (Mustela erminea) – a type of weasel; the small rodent Collared Lemming (Dicrostonyx groenlandicus) – which, despite urban legend, does not jump off cliffs en-masse but actually bravely stands its ground and probably wouldn’t jump on a dare. The Arctic Hare (Lepus arcticus) is well-known for his seasonal change from brown to white; and even Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) gets in on the act by not turning entirely white, but generally lightening from deep browns to light tans. Reindeer aren’t one to be dictated by fashion. Even the Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) which is easily overlooked as a rather common brown and tan speckled bird much of the year, emerges as brilliant white for the winter. Which is rather surprising, as this bird normally lives in the arctic and subarctic where snow is common and white would seem to be the preferred ‘blend-in’ color. Maybe she just likes to change things around every so often.

While wildlife might not greet the new year with as much enthusiasm as humans (and most animals really don’t like to wear party hats), nevertheless all of us, animals and people alike, acknowledge changes the new year brings and, in our own ways, prepare for the winter and look forward to Spring. But as humans who must share the world with every other animal, we can try to make good choices that benefit all, and not just the decision to occasionally change our coats.


Michonne Says: Marmots are always marmot-colored. The stories say long ago some marmots tried to turn white but it was too much work, no one could decide exactly what shade of white to become, and there were no flowers to eat anyway. So now we just sleep through the cold time and dream of flower-time.

Posted January 4, 2015 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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