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McAbee: Winter survival

by Jeff McAbee

Twenty-nine degrees below zero remains the coldest temperature I have ever experienced personally. The fact that we survived that week of arctic weather is a testament to our fortitude and ingenuity as a species.

When someone asked me the other day how the animals survived the snow and bitter cold, I mined my brain for two-dollar words I learned in college when I studied that sort of thing. I didn’t find much. More research was required.

I called a few professors at CSU and perused the Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW) website to dig a little deeper into the world of winter survival strategies. As I read, my mind began to wonder away from the ermine and pine marten. I started to anthropomorphize these strategies. In other words, for every strategy employed by the animals, I could see a human friend here in Summit County using the same technique to get through the winter months.

According to my research, winter survival begins in the summer and fall when animals fatten up by increasing their calorie intake. Additionally, they put on a thick winter coat for insulation. Plump and bearded like Grizzly Adams, my friend Mike puts down cheeseburgers two at a time. He’s the kind of guy who wears a sleeveless shirt on the chilliest of days, proudly displaying his awesome gut. I mean, it looks like part of him is suspended in a landslide headed to the floor. What he doesn’t realize or at least doesn’t articulate is that it is his low surface area to volume ratio that keeps him warmer than his skinnier friends. That and the big beard.

Migration is a familiar strategy employed by birds such as geese to deal with winter. And yet, more humans than I can count beat it down south when the snow starts to fly. This winter though, the joke’s on them as snow and cold temperatures have infested all but the equatorial climes.

Some animals change to an adaptive fur color in order to camouflage themselves. For instance, the snowshoe hare is brown in summer and white in winter and remains active all year long in its coniferous forest habitat. Me too, I disguise myself in ski attire, becoming invisible on the slopes among the throng, unique just like everyone else.

Another effective strategy is found among insects. Their bodily fluids act as a cryoprotectant, a sort of antifreeze. Down at the local watering holes, many residents and tourists alike can be seen imbibing the brown and green bottled varieties of antifreeze available in the county.

Pocket gophers survive winter in a tunnel and subterranean burrow system. As I leave my house and drive out of my driveway, I can’t see over the snow banks and think, hmmm.

Of course these tunnels are made by plow trucks and the guys who drive them. They employ another winter survival strategy by remaining active. Rainbow trout are found in flowing waterways with adequate oxygen, some available food and remain moderately active throughout winter. Anyone in this county with a Monday through Friday gig is “moderately active” – but usually on weekends.

The pygmy nuthatch communally roosts. Many individuals pile into the same abode, a hole in a tree or a four-bedroom house. In addition to staying warm and cozy, I think they save on rent.

On a certain Sunday known for a big football game with funny commercials and an underwhelming half time show, I found myself behaving like the elk or bison, that is, hanging with the herd.

First, I went to church and spent time in close proximity to my friends there. CDOW calls that “social thermoregulation.” Then I went skiing – “camouflaged activity.” For the first half of the game, I rejoined a small herd huddled tightly in front of the TV. However, not all of my friends were at this party – a fact easily explained by wildlife biologists. They say: “Although animals presumably save energy through social thermoregulation these benefits are not necessarily mutual among group members.” In other words, not every one of us wants the group hug.

In fact, the black bear go into a deep sleep or “winter lethargy.” This is not a total hibernation as is commonly thought. They can be roused fairly easily from this lethargy and become immediately active.

I watched the second half of the big game in a man cave with a 12-foot TV screen, surround sound and a reclining chair. One could spend the winter in there coming out only to eat and defecate. My friend rouses easily for work and some other important matters, but then it’s back to the cave and the lethargic state.

The marmot disappears into the rocks in September or October and doesn’t emerge again until April or May. They’re hibernating. Nestled into burrows where the ambient temperature remains above freezing, the marmot shuts its metabolism down to conserve energy. It enters a state of “torpor” typified by greatly reduced body temperature, heart rate and respiration and subsists on stored body fat.

I suspect more than a few Summit County residents have had the hibernation dream. With no job or responsibilities holding us back, we fatten up, let our hair grow, tunnel out to a small cabin in the woods alone or in a small familial unit, thermoregulating in close proximity and living off the food and wood we cached in summer. Perhaps even drinking a fine cryoprotectant out of coffee mugs near hot stove not to emerge until spring.

Which reminds me: Has anyone seen my buddy Jason?

Jeff McAbee lives in Breckenridge. He’s a campus supervisor at Summit High School.


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