Tag Archives: adaptations

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Winter has arrived in the Northeast and snow is in the forecast. While we are piling on the cozy layers and feasting on soup and hot chocolate, outside temperatures are dropping and food for wildlife is getting scarce. Animals across the region are tackling the season head-on and have some impressive strategies to cope with winter conditions.

In the winter, snowshoe hares completely transform, their fur changing from brown to white for better camouflage in the snow. They spend their time eating and hiding which helps to conserve energy for their encounters with predators, such as the lynx. Further south, the New England cottontail uses its brown coat to blend into thick underbrush, and uses snow as a ladder to reach higher shoots, seedlings and twigs.

Have you ever wondered where amphibians and reptiles go in the winter? Most frogs, turtles, and snakes dramatically decrease their activity and enter a state of brumation, or dormancy, where their temperature drops and the heart rate slows down dramatically. Many turtles will bury themselves in mud at the bottom of a pond and absorb oxygen through their skin from the surrounding water. Wood frogs are even capable of freezing solid under leaves in forested areas. They are able to do this by filling their cells with a sugary substance that acts like antifreeze. The frog’s heartbeat stops and stays dormant all winter until they thaw again in spring!

A piping plover and chick by Kaiti Titherington/USFWS

For many birds, the cold is just too much to bear. Like many of us in the winter, migrating birds including the piping plover, leave their homes on the chilly northern coast and take a vacation down south to the warmer shorelines and sandy beaches. Most piping plover are already in their vacation nests by mid-September and come back to work (and mate) by mid-April. Bird migrations vary in length, but some range from hundreds to thousands of miles each year.

An American black bear in a tree. Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS

If long distance migration isn’t your thing, why not just sleep through winter like the American black bear? Bears aren’t true hibernators, but they can doze for up to 100 days at a time by slowing their metabolism and dropping their core temperature. Bears usually put on fifteen pounds a week during the fall to prepare for their long nap and stretch without food.

As Andrew King took this shot, an Indiana bat flew beneath a large hibernating cluster of Indiana bats on the ceiling of Ray’s Cave, IN (taken pre-white nose syndrome.)

The Indiana bat, a true hibernator, accumulates layers of fat and spends months tucked away in its hibernaculum, like a cave or mine. Throughout winter, bats periodically rouse to move between hibernacula, before their heart rate and body temperature is dramatically lowered to conserve energy. Sadly, white-nose syndrome is plaguing bat hibernacula and causing populations of bats to plummet. Learn more about white-nose syndrome here.

A ruffed grouse in the snow by Head Harbor Lightstation/ Creative Commons

Ruffed grouse are non-migratory birds. They stick out the winters in their usual homes in a protected thicket or burrowed in the snow.  In the late fall, feathers begin to grow on their legs to protect from the cold and help conserve body heat. Pectinations (fleshy comb-like projections along their toes) help them walk on soft snow, roost and burrow. Down feathers allow birds to trap air against their body to stay warm, and many birds will even cuddle together to keep warm.

Swallows cuddle up to keep warm. Photo by Keith Williams/ Creative Commons

We can learn a thing or two from wildlife this winter. Cuddling, sleeping, or vacationing through winter doesn’t sound half bad, especially if you’re not a fan of winter weather!

Whooooo’s that?

Owls always have a way of captivating us with their big beautiful eyes and elusive nature. You may already know that owls also have some superb skills that enable them to navigate the night and find food to survive.

Owls have an incredible adaptation that most bird species do not have. On the leading edge of an owl’s primary flight feathers, small comb like structures, called flutings, break up the air turbulence and enable the owl to fly silently. This gives them the upper hand when sneaking up on and tackling prey. These flutings also allow the owls to use their incredible sense of hearing, uninhibited by the sound of their own wings.

Hearing is the sense owls use most when locating pray. An owl’s ears are located behind their facial feathers, often times asymmetrically. This means one ear is located higher on the head then the other, allowing the owls to better locate prey. The owl’s facial feathers, or face plate, is shaped like a disk and funnels sounds directly to the ears. Owls can even alter their facial disks at will when in pursuit of prey. Their hearing is so precise, they rarely use their eyes for hunting, making owls no match for opponents.

When not in active pursuit of prey, owls can often go unnoticed and blend right into the background. These masters of disguise have custom uniforms to best accommodate their landscape. For example, screech owls vary from light gray morphs to dark red morphs to best match the bark of a deciduous or coniferous habitat. Meanwhile, snowy owls, with their peppered white and black pattern, blend into sandy and snowy landscapes with no trouble. Burrowing owls who are active during the day, stay low to the ground where they best match the prairie and desert landscapes that lack trees.

While different species of owls often have different camouflage strategies, we can agree they are all superb owls!