Y ou think you have it rough this time of year? Sure, Minnesota winters do present people with some inconveniences and discomforts and even dangers.
But it could be worse.
Kao Thao, interpretive naturalist at Fort Snelling State Park, leads public programs on how non-migrating animals make it through the coldest months. Judging from Thao’s accounts, our winter lifestyle is pretty cushy compared to what Minnesotans of the nonhuman variety go through.
For instance, we might say our feet are frozen solid, but unlike wood frogs we’re usually not speaking literally.
Unlike mice, we can run out and grab a bite without worrying that someone else out looking for a meal will see us as their tasty main course.
And we can be grateful that, unlike mosquitoes, winter isn’t our signal to depart for that great brackish pond in the sky, consoled only by the knowledge that, come spring, babies we’ve never even seen will keep our species going.
Here are some of Thao’s tales of winter survival that will renew your appreciation for central heating and pizza delivery.
People often think of bears as the classic hibernators, Thao said, but in fact “bears are not true hibernators at all.” Hibernation involves extremely low body temperature and heart rates. What bears do sounds closer to what we call sleep, except in longer stretches. Their body temperature and heart rate drop by only about 10 percent. They wake up every now and then.
Female black bears give birth in the winter. A sleep-deprived human mother might envy her ursine counterpart those postpartum months when the mom gets to doze while her cubs nurse. To prepare to provide milk, the mother bear stores fat and other nutrients as cold weather approaches, then loses a third or more of her body weight over the winter while nursing. At birth, the cubs weigh less than a pound, have only a light covering of fur, and can barely crawl. The mother stays somewhat alert, moving as needed to let the cubs nurse without squishing them.
Ground squirrels and chipmunks practice true hibernation, maintaining only essential bodily functions. As they curl up in some out-of-the-way spot, their hearts slow to a few beats per minute, their body temperatures drop almost as low as the surrounding air. Still, they also wake up from time to time to snack on acorns and seeds collected the previous fall. Rabbits and squirrels hibernate just briefly, in extreme cold.
For the mice, voles and other small rodents that stay active in winter (or at least emerge occasionally for food), winter is a relatively safe time of year. A layer of snow keeps their tunnels a comfortable temperature and offers concealment — unless they get nabbed by an owl, wolf, fox or coyote. Those predators have keen hearing (also, in the owl’s case, good eyesight) and can detect tiny scurrying paws even through the snow. When canine predators hear a rodent, they pounce. To the uninformed, this movement — hopping into the snow with their front paws — might look like frolicking. But actually, they’re busy killing.
Reptiles and amphibians
Snakes spend winters in crevices and other protected spots, generally in groups. In spring, they often emerge en masse.
If you happen to be in just the right place at just the right time, you can see a slew of snakes simultaneously slithering from their secluded sleeping spaces. People who suffer from ophidiophobia (fear of snakes, the most common phobia, affecting about a third of adult humans) might want to avoid a certain point on the Mendota trail in Fort Snelling State Park on the first really warm days of late April or early May. “I have seen hundreds of snakes come out at once,” Thao said.
Some insects hibernate or become dormant. For others, winter’s arrival is a buzzkill, literally.
The woolly bear caterpillar spends its winters frozen like a tree frog. If all goes well, it can live eight or even up to 12 years, a long life by bug standards. That’s how long it can take to develop the chemicals needed to cocoon. Once they emerge as moths, though, their bucket list is short: find a mate and lay eggs. It’s a whirlwind romance, because within a couple of weeks that bucket gets kicked.
Dragonflies also lead a strangely scheduled life: They spend their first three to five years underwater as small bugs called nymphs. Then they emerge as full-fledged dragonflies and spend the summer eating mosquitoes and the like. When autumn comes, both predator and prey will — you guessed it — die.