by guest writer, Ed Taccone with photos by Jennifer Howard
I am a native critter and soon I will be sound asleep. I am a Canadian Black Bear, and I spent my time this past autumn preparing for a long winter rest, having consumed 30,000 calories a day. Yes, many of my wildlife species friends will spend the winter in hibernation, and depending on some of my friends’ habitats, some may hibernate shorter or longer than I do.
Since I am an expert on hibernation from all my species friends, I can tell you I know three types of hibernation, true hibernation, brumation and torpor.
True Hibernation: is characterized by low body temperature, slow breathing, low heart rate, and a low metabolic rate. In this reduced state of activity, these animals conserve energy during the long, cold winter months when there is little food available. During true hibernation, some of my friends will not wake up even if there is a loud noise or if they are moved or touched. If I were you though, should you humans happen to come across me and my friends in some form of hibernation do not attempt to “disturb” us. You see, we do not use “do not disturb” signs.
Brumation: is the hibernation-like state that cold-blooded species in my area (reptiles and amphibians) enter during very cold weather. They tell me it is triggered by the onset of colder temperatures and shorter daylight hours and can last for months. Animals in brumation typically wake up to drink water and might shift before returning to sleep.
Torpor: or light hibernation, like me, helps other species friends of mine survive the harsh winter months. Unlike true hibernation, torpor lasts only for short periods of time, allowing the animals to wake up during warmer winter days. I really love those warmer sunny days.
Since I’m in the know I really get upbeat with my natural habitat so I will gladly share some examples of my species friends that hibernate during the winter.
Little Brown Bats: hibernate in humid caves or abandoned mines that remain above freezing. Found across most of Canada, they do not feed or drink while hibernating. Very neat eh!
Groundhogs: (or woodchucks like some of you humans like to call them) are one of Canada’s largest true hibernators, going into a deep, comatose sleep. They survive on accumulated body fat, dropping their temperature to 3°C and their heartbeat from 80 beats per minute to only four or five. Such wonderful friends!
Blanding’s turtles and Leopard Frogs are brumation species. The turtles remain underwater and will not see them until the beginning of Spring.
Frogs spend their winters under the ice of rivers, creeks or ponds. A high concentration of glucose in the vital organs of Leopard Frogs prevents freezing. Once the weather warms and the ice melts, the frog will thaw, and its heart and lungs resume normal activities.
I don’t want to brag, but are they not pretty amazing friends of mine?
Like me, Richardson’s Ground Squirrels are light hibernators. So are Eastern Chipmunks and Striped Skunks. But between you and I, I’ll let you in a little secret, bears are not true hibernators. They only go into a torpor, during which their heart rate is extremely low, but their body temperature remains high.
The Ground Squirrels, an important part of the prairie ecosystem, can be in the torpor state, can you believe, for four to nine months a year, waking up for short periods of time!
The chipmunks don’t sleep all the way through the season but wake up every few days to feed on their stored food. I love them they’re so cute. Unlike many rodents and birds around me, who hoard food for the cold months, the skunks have spent the autumn eating as much as possible. Once settled into their den, these mammals go into a torpor, waking from time to time.
Of course, some species including most carnivores and members of the deer family don’t hibernate at all. Some of them are specially adapted to hunting or foraging in the deep snow and chilly temperatures of Canada’s north. Nature is teeming with wildlife in winter, it is just difficult to see. Would you like some examples? Of course, you would! Here, are some examples:
Artic Foxes are sub-zero specialists, well adapted to cold climates. Their compact body, short legs and ears reduce exposure and conserve heat, and their large, furry paws allow them to walk on top of snowdrifts. They can withstand temperatures as low as -50 degrees (Brrr) by sheltering behind rocks or windbreaks and wrapping their long, bushy tails around their heads.
Beavers: take advantage of the insulating snow and their waterproof coats get thicker in winter. And these friends of mine at times warn me of danger nearby.
Chickadees: live in Ontario year-round. Throughout the year, they store food in cracks of tree bark. Their hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory, expands in the fall and winter to help it recall where it stored food. Most amazing of all is the bird’s ability to go into regulated hypothermia. During the day, Chickadees gorge on their stockpiled food supplies. When dusk comes, they lower their internal body temperature and shiver through the night to keep warm. When daylight breaks, they begin feasting again to replenish the spent calories. It is very soothing to hear them sing. What? You don’t think bears like to hear birds singing. Humans are so not versed with nature.
Have I mentioned the majestic Moose? They store up large quantities of fat in autumn, relying on their stored energy and conserving it by moving as little as possible!
How about Grey Wolves? They have two layers of fur that help them stay warm during the cold winter.
The Canada Lynx, one of our country’s biggest cats, has no problem trekking in deep snow, thanks to its large, furred paws, which act like snowshoes.
Their keen eyesight and their sharp, feline senses connect them to their environment and make them great hunters.
I am always on the lookout for them.
A little bit of advice from an old bear, Nature is all around us, even in winter. Get outside, enjoy it, and discover a world of winter wildlife activities. Remember that nature is not noisy, and please keep in mind animals and plants go about their efforts for survival quietly. So, “please do not disturb”.
Eddy the Teddy