Thinking Outside the Classroom: Migrate, hibernate or adapt |

Thinking Outside the Classroom: Migrate, hibernate or adapt

Carrie Scheick Keystone Science School program coordinator

As winter gives way to spring, our outdoor activities change with the season as we spend more time outside. What about the animals who spend all their time outside? What have they been doing all winter?

Animals do one of three things during winter: migrate, hibernate or adapt.

When we think of migration, we primarily think of birds. However, other animals such as elk, caribou and whales also migrate to find food. Scientists are still studying migration, but it is thought that migration cycles are controlled by the changes in the amount of daylight and weather.

There is a common misconception that all animals that sleep through winter are hibernating. Some of them are “true hibernators” while others are simply in a state of torpor, which is a period of inactivity. Animals in torpor maintain their body temperature whereas true hibernators — such as bats, ground squirrels, and marmots — decrease their body temperature, heart rate and metabolism. Marmots can drop their respiratory rate as low as two breaths a minute! These true hibernators wake up only periodically throughout the winter because it is very energy intensive for them. A hibernating animal usually wakes up only to defecate and refuel from their stocked “pantry” of food called a cache.

Some animals adapt and stay active during winter. Animals such as snowshoe hares and ptarmigans change the color of their fur or feathers. Their winter “coat” turns from brown to white to help them camouflage in the snow. This helps them hide from predators during the winter and increases their survival rate.

Deer will grow much thicker fur to insulate themselves from the cold temperatures. Foxes change their diet because the prey available for them to eat changes based on the season.

Smaller animals — such as pikas, voles, and shrews — are active in the subnivean zone, an area between the ground and bottom of the snowpack. This zone is the warmest area of the snowpack because the ground maintains a constant temperature of 32 degrees, and snow is a great insulator.

As you move farther from the ground toward the top of the snowpack, the snowpack’s temperature decreases. The top layer of the snowpack is the coldest because it is in contact with the air. You’ll often see these animals scurrying around during the spring, summer and fall collecting plants for their caches.

Now it’s your turn to do a science experiment. You will get to model the effects of a winter habitat and see how the winter environment can affect the warmth of an animal.

What can you do to stay warm in a harsh environment? 

  1. Fill a small, sealable container with warm water.
  2. Measure and record the water temperature.
  3. Insulate the sealed container. How? That’s up to you!
  4. Place the insulated container in the refrigerator for 2 hours.
  5. Remove container from refrigerator and remove the insulation.
  6. Measure and record water temperature.
  7. Subtract the second temperature from the first to calculate heat loss.

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