Well, the shortest days of the year have passed and day length is getting slightly longer each day. It still seems like it is dark far too long in January. Part of the problem is that it is not only dark, but it is cold and dark. Sometimes, in the dark times of winter, it seems like it would be great if we could just take a 3 month nap from January till April and then wake up in time for spring! Some animal species have evolved a great way to do this exactly. It is called “hibernation.”
There are several different types of hibernation and scientists have argued about what constitutes “true” hibernation. Woodchucks, some small mammals, amphibians and bats do truly hibernate for most of the winter. Their body processes slow down drastically and remain that way for almost a prescribed time period that is triggered by day length. Other animals, such as black bears, also slow their metabolism down drastically and sleep for much of the winter, but they are capable of waking up and wandering around on nice winter days, looking for a snack. A reader from Ulster County had the misfortune of having his bird feeders trashed twice this winter by a black bear, on both Christmas and New Year’s Eve. As the planet warms up, I wonder if this type of activity will increase in our region.
“True” hibernators will sleep all winter regardless of temperatures. If you brought your pet hedge-hog to Aruba with you for the winter, after it had gone to sleep, it would still sleep away most of the winter. Sleeping pets are pretty easy to care for, but not great company. Amphibians, such as frogs and salamanders burrow into mud in the bottom and edges of ponds that often freezes solid, but that does not seem to bother them at all. They awake in the spring unscathed by frost and lack of food, or air, or snow. Other animals and many insects also do just fine in a hollow log, or in your attic or wall voids. Wooly bear caterpillars spend the winter in their caterpillar form for at least one winter. In northern climates they may remain as caterpillars for several winters before turning to moths.
The tricky part about acquiring this ability is preventing ice crystals from forming that will expand and can rupture cells, killing them. Some insects, snow fleas for example, have a chemical in their body fluids that is exactly the same as the antifreeze you put in your radiator. Many species of fish, which remain unfrozen at the bottom of ponds or lakes, become sluggish and don’t feed as often as they do in warmer water. This explains why ice fishing is more of a spectator sport than actually catching anything, most of the time. Sometimes ice fishermen, or fisherwomen, get lucky and just happen to drill a hole above a school of yellow perch that can be caught through the ice. These fish may be actively feeding near the bottom of the pond, but once they are deposited on the ice, they soon turn into yellow popsicles. There is nothing quite as brilliant yellow in color, as a perch caught while ice fishing.
Excessive sleeping is frowned upon in our modern society and considered as “sloth,” which is one of the seven deadly sins. Ironically, sloths do not hibernate at all in nature, but like me, they tend to nap a lot. We all know people who seem to function very well on much less sleep than others. Some people even consider sleep as “a waste of time.” When I was younger I wished I had more time to sleep and longed for the days when that would be possible. Now that I have the free time to sleep 10 or more hours a night, my old body does not cooperate, which is also ironic.
Personally, I prefer to imitate the lifestyle of many birds and simply head south when it gets uncomfortably cold. Sometimes I wonder if the Great Blue Heron that is watching me fishing from a pier in Bradenton, is the same one that patrols my friend Lester’s pond each summer. He or she seems friendly enough. They all look pretty much the same to me, but I guess that is what animals think about humans as well.
Reach Bob Beyfuss at email@example.com.