The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Outdoors

February 9, 2014

Hibernation a good way to escape winter

BECKLEY — Hibernation seems the perfect way to deal with extreme winter weather. When temperatures dip 10 degrees below zero with minus-25-degree wind chills, as they have this winter, I admire wildlife that are adapted to extreme winter weather.

Protected by thick layers of fat and/or a cozy den below the frost line, hibernators are oblivious to sub-zero temperatures, wind, snow, and ice. They just sleep through winter’s worst.

Hibernation, however, is a broad, imprecise term. Though many mammals sleep through at least portions of winter, only a few truly hibernate.

Simply put, hibernators stop trying to stay warm when days get shorter and temperatures drop. Their body temperature drops to reduce the energy required to stay alive. As tissue cools, it uses less energy, so the animal’s fat reserves last longer.

Hibernators go dormant in the fall and do not stir until they emerge in the spring.  Furthermore, body temperature, heart rate, and respiration rate plunge. Here in the east, the list of true hibernators is short: ground hogs and two species of jumping mice.    

When ground hogs head underground for the winter, they weigh about 30 percent more than they did in early summer. As ground hogs prepare to hibernate, they plug the entrance to the burrow to keep out potential predators and maintain a stable underground environment. Then they curl up in the sleeping chamber, and their body temperature slowly drops about 57 degrees to 44 degrees F. Their breathing slows, and their heart rate drops from about 100 beats per minute to about four beats per minute. In March, ground hogs wake up weighing about 50 percent less than their fall weight. Then it’s time to emerge, eat, and find a mate.

When ground hogs emerge in the spring, they mate almost immediately even though they are not in optimal physical condition.  The strategy is to give birth and get young ground hogs out of the den and independent as quickly as possible so they have enough time to gain the weight required to survive their first hibernation.

Meadow and woodland jumping mice behave similarly. In a chamber about the size of a grapefruit up to three feet beneath the ground, jumping mice tuck their nose between their hind legs and wrap their long tail around the body.  Because they are small (they weigh less than one ounce), surviving winter can be a challenge. Some years more than half die in the hibernaculum.

Black bears and chipmunks also sleep through much of winter, but they don’t qualify as true hibernators. Bears fatten up in the fall and sleep deeply, but their respiration, heart rate, and body temperature do not fall significantly.  And during warm spells bears sometimes wake and even wander around near the den.

Furthermore, sows give birth to cubs in late January. The cubs nurse for about two months and are ready to leave the den with their mother in late March or early April.  If disturbed during a deep winter sleep, female bears can rouse themselves in just a few minutes.  Every bear biologist I’ve ever talked to tells of at least one close call while working with a “hibernating” bear.

Chipmunks, the familiar striped ground squirrel found in backyards, escape winter’s fury underground, but they don’t rely on a layer of fat to survive.  During their fall foraging frenzy they collect and cache as much as a bushel of seeds and nuts in their burrows. They wake periodically during winter and eat the stored food, and on warm winter days they may actually emerge and forage in the daylight.

Squirrels, raccoons, skunks, opossums, and foxes remain active all winter long, but during extremely cold weather, they sometimes curl up in a hollow log, den tree, or burrow for days.  Some of these mammals conserve body heat during winter weather by sleeping in groups. Flying squirrels frequently huddle in groups of ten or more, and raccoons sleep in pairs or groups of three during very cold weather.

— Dr. Scott Shalaway can be heard 8 to 10 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 WVLY-AM (Wheeling) or online at http://tunein.com/radio/WVLY-1370-s23555/. Visit Scott’s web site  www.drshalawaycom or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV  26033.

1
Text Only
Outdoors
  • 071714 Coda and Callie.jpg Coda and Callie’s excellent adventure

    How is it something that you profess to love so much can cause you so much anxiety and grief? No, I’m not talking about dealing with your children (or your spouse). This is worse. This is about dogs. More specifically, hunting dogs. 

    July 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • 071314 Chris Ellis.jpg DNR’s ‘outdoor summer school’

    Attention all West Virginia hunters and trappers. It is once again time for outdoor summer school and the course materials are hot off the presses.

    July 13, 2014 1 Photo

  • Meet the Eurasian collared-dove

    Back in 1974 a local pigeon fancier imported a flock of about 50 Eurasian collared-doves to the Bahamas. Ultimately he released the birds, and they took to living in the West Indies. By the late 1970s some had reached south Florida, and by the late 1980s, some had been seen in Georgia and Arkansas.

    July 13, 2014

  • July in W.Va.: Recreational opportunities abound

    It’s July in the West Virginia mountains, which brings vibrant orange tiger lilies, blooming rhododendron, and of course fireworks. Usually the heat and humidity is in full force, but so far the weather has been nice.

    July 13, 2014

  • Shotgun 101: Shoot more and live better

    “God is not on the side of big battalions, but on the side of those who shoot best.”
    — Voltaire

    July 9, 2014

  • Fireflies are living lights

    At recent Fourth of July fireworks displays, spectators squealed with delight at the annual spectacle that illuminated the night sky. And I’m sure more than a few compared the spectacular pyrotechnics to the subtler displays of fireflies that punctuate backyards, parks, and campgrounds all summer long. We call these displays “nature’s fireworks.”

    July 5, 2014

  • Get on up, or you’ll get left behind

    “Let me embrace thee, sour adversity, for wise men say it is the wisest course.” —
    William Shakespeare

    July 3, 2014

  • Catfish, it's whats for dinner

    I think for far too long the catfish has had an image problem. They seemed to be the Rodney Dangerfield of the fish world. You know, they got no respect. Fortunately though (maybe unfortunately if you are a catfish), that seems to be in the past. They are a fish whose time has come.

    June 28, 2014

  • It’s more than a boat, it’s an adventure

    Growing up on Elk River, I couldn’t help being connected to the river and its waters. It is where I caught my first fish, learned to swim, paddle a canoe, to read water and throw a buzz bait, killed my first duck, gigged frogs and spent many a Saturday night fishing for catfish. We lived in a river bank community, and the Elk provided us with everything from water for our homes to all the recreation a young boy would need to fill his youthful requirements for adventure.

    June 28, 2014

  • Old friends at the beach

    If your summer vacation plans include a trip to an east coast beach, I can’t predict everything you might see. But one bird that I guarantee you’ll encounter many times is the laughing gull.

    June 28, 2014

Web Special Sections
  • Special Web Sections

    Click HERE for stories about natural gas and Marcellus shale gas extraction.

    Click HERE for stories about the Upper Big Branch mine disaster.

    Click HERE for stories about the passing of U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

    Click HERE for stories from The Greenbrier Classic PGA TOUR event.

    August 6, 2010

Helium debate
Helium
AP Video
Judge Ponders Overturning Colo. Gay Marriage Ban Airlines Halt Travel to Israel Amid Violence NYPD Chief Calls for 'use of Force' Retraining VA Nominee McDonald Goes Before Congress Bush: Don't Worry, Sugarland Isn't Breaking Up US Official: Most Migrant Children to Be Removed Police Probing Brooklyn Bridge Flag Switch CDC Head Concerned About a Post-antibiotic Era Raw: First Lady Says `Drink Up' More Water Courts Conflicted Over Healthcare Law Holder Urges Bipartisanship on Immigration Raw: Truck, Train Crash Leads to Fireball US Airlines Cancel Israel Flights Obama Signs Workforce Training Law Crash Victims' Remains Reach Ukraine-held City Diplomatic Push Intensifies to End War in Gaza Cat Fans Lap Up Feline Film Festival Michigan Plant's Goal: Flower and Die Veteran Creates Job During High Unemployment