Washington Evening Journal

Fairfield Ledger   Mt. Pleasant News
Neighbors Growing Together | Aug 21, 2018

Tracks and Tales: I am not going out

By Pam Holz

Beep beep beep, blares the alarm.  Maybe if I dig myself deeper under the covers I won’t hear it.  I certainly, definitely don’t want to pop out to shut it off.  My kids don’t have to go to school today; why do I have to go to work?  I am cozy here, under the covers.  Out there, beyond the wall, is dangerous windchill.  Nope, I am not moving.  Beep beep beep.  Drat.  
At least once per winter, I inform my boss I won’t be in the next day, or the day after.  I’m going home to hibernate and won’t be back till spring.  At those times, hibernation feels to me like the winter equivalent to the childish habit of covering one’s ears and saying nah, nah, nah, I can’t hear you.  Except in this case, we blanket ourselves with comforters and think, winter, nah, nah, nah, I can’t feel you.  You don’t exist anymore for me.  
Of course, hibernation didn’t develop as a coping mechanism to icky weather, not in that sense anyway.  And as humans, we aren’t built for such deep slumber, but it’s nice to think sometimes what if.  
Birds are fortunate.  Their ability to fly gives them much more freedom to travel than other creatures.  That means that if winter doesn’t suit them, they could, more or less, easily travel to better climes.  Everyone else opens themselves up, natural history-wise, to greater dangers if they migrate.  So if surviving winter is too risky, how can they avoid it if leaving is not an option?  
Hence, hibernation.  In the most loosely and commonly used sense, hibernation is a deeper-than-normal sleep occurring over winter.  Reptiles, amphibians, and many invertebrates (animals without backbones) hibernate because they are ectothermic, or cold-blooded.  They rely on outside temperatures to regulate their body temperature.  A drop below freezing, for them, means death.  
Mammals, in comparison, don’t concern themselves too much over temperature.  Well, not as much anyway.  Being endothermic, or warm-blooded, their body temperature remains the same no matter what.  However, finding enough food to keep that temperature up when the weather turns frigid is another matter entirely.  For pickier eaters, especially those lacking in winter food supplies, (for example bats eating flying bugs), hibernation might be the best bet.  
Hibernation is not merely taking a nap and not waking up for several months.  To begin with, before a mammal can even begin to find a comfy spot, they need to fatten up.  A lot.  Even though their metabolic processes will slow way down, they still need some energy to live.  That energy has to last them all winter long.  Some animals try to minimize risk by also storing food nearby as well.  A midwinter snack might be just the thing to get through the rest of the season for them, energy-wise.  
During hibernation, an animal’s bodily processes all slow down.  Deep hibernators, like woodchucks, have body temperatures drop to just above freezing, hearts beat only once every few minutes, and breathing slows.  Reptiles and amphibians, though with slightly different metabolic systems, will be very similar.  Other mammals, though, like bears, may be more easily awoken, since their hibernation state is not as deep.  Sometimes they may even wander for a bit.  These animals, in comparison, require a bit more energy.  
If hibernation still sounds like a good way to pass the winter, we haven’t gotten to the catch yet.  First, the animal has to have stored enough energy for the entire winter.  What happens if the winter is extra long?  Or extra cold?  In either case, more energy is needed, even in a hibernation state.  Or the animal starves.    
Second, the animal needs to make a good choice about where to hibernate.  Somewhere safe from predators and safe from the elements.  Again, below normal temperatures or lack of insulating snow cover could send frost deeper into the earth, freezing out an animal in its hidey hole.  
Third, the animal needs to wake up and warm up enough to eat in a timely manner while still avoiding predators.  
Hmmm.  Well, as long as I ignore the details…. I still don’t want to get out of bed till the weather warms up.  Someone please shut off my alarm for me.