Tuesday, January 4, 2011

How Adirondack Wildlife Survive the Cold

While we sit inside on these increasingly colder winter days, have you ever wondered; how do the wild creatures of the Adirondacks survive? From the smallest insect to the largest mammal each is adapted to survive the cold in very interesting ways.

The black bear, an icon of the Adirondack forest does not truly hibernate, but instead slumbers through the cold winter in a torpid or dormant state within a warm den. The difference between true hibernation and a torpid state is, in a torpid state the animal can still be easily awoken.

Most animals can maintain a constant body temperature; these are termed warm-blooded or homeothermic. Smaller warm-blooded animals have fast metabolisms and must eat sometimes as much as their body weight daily to survive the cold. I personally felt like I was one of them this Holiday season. Other animals can’t maintain a constant body temperature and will let their body temperature drop during winter, allowing their hearts to stop. These animals are cold-blooded or poikilothermic.

Some animals of the Adirondacks are active all winter; you can signs of them in the snow and at bird feeders. Only bats, woodchucks, chipmunkc and jumping mice will truly hibernate. With the exception of honeybees, most insects as well as amphibians and reptiles will hibernate. Some frogs can even produce natural antifreeze that protects their vital organs from freezing, as do some fish species.

It is amazing how nature copes with the cold. Birds can migrate, plants dieback, trees rely on stored energy in their roots. Mammals hibernate, forage or group together and insects, reptiles and amphibians will lower their body temperature and stop their hearts.

For me the most interesting is in the lakes, ponds and streams. Beneath the ice, in the dark, the turtle burrows into the mud, to wait for spring; relying on only the dissolved oxygen that it can pull from the water. Alongside the turtles are many invertebrates, just waiting for the spring thaw. The fish that have been feeding near shore now move out into deeper water to find food. Some fish species like the frostfish even spawn under the ice, with their eggs waiting till the warmer spring temperatures to hatch. The beaver also breeds this time of year.

While the wildlife is adapted to survive the cold, there are still some things that we as Adirondackers can do to assist their survival. Plant native plant species in your yard. Invasive and non-native species have lowered nutritional value and animals that feed on them may starve to death. Let standing and decaying trees, stay in the woods. They make perfect habitat for insects and small mammals. Provide brush, log, or rock piles near the edge of the woods as foraging spots and as habitat. It is also important to protect streamside cooridors, headwater streams and spring seeps. Wildlife benefit from streamside zones. This important habitat provides feeding areas for mammals, birds and many reptiles and amphibians during the colder days.

As you go for a hike out into the woods this winter, keep your eyes open to the signs of wildlife all around you. From the birds on the wing, to the vole under the snow, we are lucky to be part of this natural world.

Photo: Along the Upper Hudson, Courtesy Blueline Photography, Jeremy Parnapy.

Corrina Parnapy is a Lake George native and a naturalist who writes regularly about the environment and Adirondack natural history for Adirondack Almanack.

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Corrina Parnapy, an Adirondack native  transplanted to Vermont with her husband and son, is the District Manager for the largest Natural Resources Conservation District in the State of Vermont.  She is the lead Aquatic Biologist/ Phycologist for Avacal Biological, and writes about the natural world for the Adirondack Almanack and other Northeast publications.




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