Hi-brrr-nation: How wildlife survives in the snow | SierraSun.com

Hi-brrr-nation: How wildlife survives in the snow

Hannah Jones
hjones@sierrasun.com

While surviving colder temperatures in the winter may not be a concern for most people, Tahoe wildlife have to resort to unique strategies to carry on through the colder months.

According to Will Richardson, the co-founder and executive director for the Tahoe Institute for Natural Science, animals in the Tahoe region have three options: "hibernate, hoof it, or hang tough."

During a Tahoe Silicon Mountain presentation on Monday, Richardson explained how animals can have different mechanisms for surviving winter including hibernating, migrating and insulating their bodies.

"If you're an animal you're thinking about metabolism and keeping your caloric needs met," said Richardson. "Having enough food coming in, enough energy coming in that you can maintain body temperatures that you can make it day to day. That gets tough with colder temperatures," he said.

He said that on a cellular level lower temperatures can prove to be extremely dangerous for wildlife. When temperatures drop, the water in a mammal's cells expand into crystals which can cause damage to the body's cells.

"Being in a mountainous area all these things are made more significant," he said. "Snow in particular is really problematic."

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"If what you're after is food, it's gone," he said adding that getting around in the snow is often difficult for most species. However there are some benefits to the snowpack including insulation from the colder temperatures and shelter from predators.

Shorter days and a lack of available food forces animals such as bear to resort to hibernation.

"What really drives hibernation in bears has a lot less to do with climate and weather and everything to do with food availability during the late fall and winter," he said. "Any wild self respecting bear around here is sleeping right now."

During this time of year, bears are decreasing their metabolism as low a possible, as well as their body temperature. The key Richardson said is to make sure they time their hibernation right and get enough food before the winter starts.

Another example of hibernation Richardson used was the Sierra Chorus Frog which can selectively freeze part of its body while keeping its vital organs warm.

"They have a very clever strategy of dealing with that," he said. He said they can direct ice to certain parts of their body by producing blood sugar around vital organs.

Species that choose not to migrate out of the area or hibernate can employ other tactics such as gaining body fat to keep them warm or camouflaging themselves to hide from predators.

Hannah Jones is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at 530-550-2652 or hjones@sierrasun.com.