Exploring your world: Coping with cold through hibernation

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

A ground squirrel.
Ground squirrel. Photo credit: Krazytea, CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

The Michigan State University Extension science team’s goal is to increase STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) literacy across Michigan. One way we increase interest in STEM is to provide information and ideas for engaging youth in the exploration of their world.      

In the second article in this series, we continue helping youth explore how Michigan animals survive winter. This article will highlight the second strategy: hibernation.

Be sure to read “Part 1: Coping with cold through migration,” for additional background and concepts.

Hibernation is a controlled drop in metabolism, breathing, heart rate, and digestion, putting the creature in a coma-like state One of the biggest misconceptions about hibernation is that most animals do this, however hibernation is unique to mammals. In fact, little brown bats, woodland and meadow jumping mice, woodchucks (groundhogs) and thirteen-lined ground squirrels are the only true hibernating mammals in Michigan.

True hibernators cannot be awakened and are unresponsive to external stimuli. They add fat in the fall that feeds their body until they come out of hibernation in the spring. Their body temperatures are maintained a few degrees above their surroundings, which is usually in a place protected from weather extremes like a tree, cave or underground. 

Remind youth that humans are animals too. Ask youth to share their thoughts on hibernation as a human winter survival strategy. If youth are tempted by the idea of sleeping through winter, take some time to go outside. Skiing, sledding, ice skating or snowshoeing are all awesome winter opportunities, as are making ice sculptures, snow angels or snow paintings.

Look for additional articles in the “Exploring your world: Coping with Cold” series that focus on the additional strategies of dormancy and remaining active.

STEM engages youth in identifying problems, designing solutions as they explore and understand their world - the backyard, a pond, a frozen hill, outer space, or a pet dog. Science is not about being right or wrong, but rather working through questions with curiosity to discover answers. Identifying problems and designing solutions develops an interest for lifelong learning. A scientist or engineer is an explorer, always on the hunt for the why and how. You can help youth become lifelong learners as they explore their world by engaging them to ask questions and discover answers.

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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