Exploring your world: Coping with cold through remaining active

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

A squirrel sitting on a snow covered branch.
Photo credit: LASZLO ILYES, CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), 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 to increase interest in STEM is to provide information and ideas for engaging youth in the exploration of their world.      

Winter is a fantastic time for STEM exploration. There is much to learn about the season, such as what snow iswhat a snowflake is, or how snow impacts soundAnimal adaptations to the cold weather is another fascinating topic. In the fourth article in this series, we continue helping youth explore how Michigan animals survive winter. This article will highlight the fourth strategy: remaining active. Be sure to read “Part 1: Coping with cold through migration,” “Part 2: Coping with cold through hibernation” and “Part 3: Coping with cold through dormancy” for additional background and concepts.

Despite cold temperatures, many species have adapted to active lifestyles during the winter. For example, fish continue to be active (as ice-fishers know!). There is a wide array of morphological, physiological and behavioral adaptations for this winter survival. A few examples of these are provided below, but investigations into the lives of active winter animals will reveal many combinations of survival strategies.

  • Mammals in Michigan are usually larger than their southern cousins. This is because it's easier for a larger animal to keep their body heat. For example, white-tailed deer in Michigan have higher weights than their cousins in Texas or Florida.  
  • Body appendages tend to get smaller in the north, as a heat conservation measure. For example, snowshoe hares have smaller ears than cottontail rabbits. Mammalian legs and snouts are also frequently shorter and stouter.
  • Some mammals, such as flying squirrels and small rodents, will occupy collective dens to conserve body heat, even though some species are non-colonial during the warm season. 
  • Food preferences can change with the season. Some browsers, such as white-tailed deer, have changes in digestive enzymes to cope with the different food sources. 
  • Aquatic mammals, such as otter and mink, grow thick layers of insulating fat and have specialized fur. 
  • Certain active animals such as snowshoe hare and ermine change color in winter, growing a white coat that helps them blend into the snowy landscape.
  • Birds and mammals undergo seasonal changes in feathers or coat. Winter coats are often thicker or may have different kinds of hair (hollow hairs provide additional insulation).
  • Ruffed grouse "snow roost" during periods of extreme cold. Snow provides a very effective barrier against severe cold and the grouse will rest under the snow until the severe weather passes. Folks who snowshoe or cross-country ski too close to these snow roosts are often caught off-guard when a grouse explodes out of the snow. 

When discussing this concept with youth, remind them that humans are animals too. Ask youth to share their thoughts on remaining active as a winter survival strategy for humans. For those people who prefer to be indoors most of the winter, the outdoors may appear to be uniformly cold and uncomfortable. However, there are many microclimates where winter stress is significantly lower. Logs, caves, holes, dead trees, spruce and cedar stands, under snow, and human structures are examples of places that provide shelter from winter extremes. These are all critical places for wildlife. Take a hike and find microclimates animals could use to survive the winter. Discuss how the animals adapt to winter conditions living in the microclimate.

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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