Find out how Michigan animals adapt to the coldest winter months.
The Michigan State University Extension Science Team’s goal is to increase literacy (STEM) in STEM fields across the state of Michigan. One way to increase interest in STEM is to provide information and ideas to engage young people in exploring their world.
Winter is a great time to explore STEM. There is a lot to learn about the season, such as what snow is, a snowflake, or the sound of the snow effect. The adaptation of animals to cold weather is another fascinating topic. In the fourth article in this series, we continue to help young people explore how Michigan animals survive the winter. This article will highlight the fourth strategy: staying active. Be sure to read “Part 1: Dealing with cold through migration,” “Part 2: Dealing with cold through hibernation” and “Part 3: Dealing with cold through dormancy” for background information and additional concepts.
Despite the cold temperatures, many species have adapted to active lifestyles during the winter. For example, fish continue to be active (as ice hunters know!). There is a wide range of morphological, physiological, and behavioral adaptations to this winter’s survival. Some examples of this are provided below, but investigations into the lives of active winter animals will reveal many combinations of survival strategies.
- The mammals of Michigan are usually larger than their southern cousins. This is because it is easier for a larger animal to maintain its own body heat. For example, the Michigan white-tailed elk has higher weights than its Texas or Florida cousins.
- The extremities of the body tend to get smaller in the north, as a measure to conserve heat. For example, snowshoe rabbits have smaller ears than cottontail rabbits. The legs and nose of mammals are often shorter and sturdier.
- Some mammals, such as flying squirrels and small rodents, will occupy communal dens to conserve body heat, although some species are not colonized during the warm season.
- Food preferences can change as the season changes. Some browsers, such as white-tailed deer, have changes in their digestive enzymes to deal with different food sources.
- Aquatic mammals, such as otters and minks, grow thick layers of insulating fat and have specialized fur.
- Some active animals like the snowshoe rabbit and their ground fur change color in the winter, resulting in the growth of a white coat that helps them blend into the snowy landscapes.
- Birds and mammals undergo seasonal changes in plumage or coat. Winter coats are often thicker or may have different types of hair (hollow hair provides extra insulation).
- Grouse disturbed “snow roost” during periods of extreme cold. The snow provides a very effective barrier against the bitter cold and the grouse will rest under the snow until the harsh weather passes. People who go snowboarding or cross-country skiing near these snowy roosts are often caught off guard when grouse bursts from the snow.
When discussing this concept with young people, remind them that humans are animals too. Ask young people to share their thoughts on staying active as a winter survival strategy for humans. For those people who prefer to stay indoors most of the winter, the outdoors can seem uniformly cold and uncomfortable. However, there are many local climates where winter stress is much lower. Tree stumps, caves, pits, dead trees, fir and cedar trees, under snow, and human structures are examples of places that provide shelter from the harshness of winter. These are all important places for wildlife. Take a walk and research the microclimate that the animals can use to survive the winter. Discuss how animals adapt to winter conditions in the local climate.
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) engages young people in identifying problems and designing solutions as they explore and understand their world – a backyard, a pond, a frozen hill, an outer space or a pet dog. Science is not about right or wrong, but rather working through questions with curiosity to discover the answers. Identifying problems and designing solutions develops an interest in lifelong learning. The scientist or engineer is an explorer, always looking for a why and how. You can help young people become lifelong learners as they explore their world by engaging them in asking questions and discovering answers.
For more ways to encourage young people to become lifelong learners who explore their world, visit the MSU Extension 4-H Teaching Science When You Don’t Know Diddly-squat seriesAnd the A series of free activities designed to encourage the fun of discovery by asking questions and discovering the answers.
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