Exploring your world: Coping with cold through dormancy

Discover how Michigan animals cope with the months of cold winter temperatures.

A racoon crossing a frozen river in winter.
Photo credit: Steve from Wasaga Beach, Ontario, Canada, CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

In the third article in this series, we continue helping youth explore how Michigan animals survive winter. This article will highlight the third strategy: dormancy. Be sure to read “Part 1: Coping with cold through migration” and “Part 2: Coping with cold through hibernation” for additional background and concepts.

Dormancy is a controlled reduction of body metabolism, lower respiration (breathing) and lower body temperatures. Dormancy is not the same as hibernation and is restricted to warm-blooded organisms. However, the metabolism of reptiles like the eastern hog-nosed snake, and amphibians like the green frog, also respond to changes in temperature. Because their body temperature is regulated by the temperature of their environment, reptiles have two types of dormancy. The first, brumation, reduces metabolism triggered by cold conditions. The second, aestivation, decreases metabolic rate due to hot, dry conditions.

A misconception about wildlife in winter is that most animals hibernate. While many Michigan species have slower wintertime metabolisms or are dormant, there are few true hibernators in the state. Warm-blooded animals like the black bear, skunk, chipmunks, racoons and mice are only dormant and can be disturbed and roused during the winter. However, disturbing a dormant animal causes the metabolism to increase and can cause them to be in danger of starvation. The best practice is to leave dormant animals alone.

When discussing this concept with youth, remind them that humans are animals too. Ask youth to share their thoughts about the types of dormancies. What do they think of dormancy as a human winter survival strategy? If youth are tempted by the idea of sleeping more during winter, take some time to go outside and enjoy the winter wonderland. Skiing, sledding, ice skating or snowshoeing are all awesome winter opportunities, as are making ice sculptures, snow angels or snow paintings.

Look for one additional article in the “Exploring your world: Coping with Cold” series that focuses on the strategy of remaining active.

The Michigan State University Extension science team’s goal is to increase science literacy across Michigan. Science engages youth in exploring and explaining their world, whether it’s the backyard, a pond, outer space or a pet dog. One way to increase interest in science is to provide information and ideas for engaging youth in the exploration of their world, through articles such as this.

Adults can help youth increase their science literacy by encouraging them to ask questions and discover answers. It’s not about being right or wrong. Working through questions to discover answers develops a curiosity for lifelong learning. A scientist is an explorer, always on the hunt for the why and how. You can help youth become lifelong learners as they explore their world.

For more ways to encourage youth to become lifelong learners exploring their world, visit the MSU Extension 4-H Teaching Science When You Don’t Know Diddly-squat seriesa series of free activities designed to encourage the joy of discovery by asking questions and discovering answers.

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