Frogsicles and Snow-Melting Plants: Nature Faces Down Winter

winterwalk-ECLYou might think you’re pretty clever with those chemical hand warmers and polyester layers to keep you warm and toasty, but the plants and animals around you have developed some pretty cool tricks of their own to cope with blustery winter weather.

Consider the wood frog. This critter can freeze solid in the winter. It has no heartbeat and doesn’t breathe, but when the weather warms up, it thaws out good as new. Most frogs don’t take things that far, but Ellanor C. Lawrence Park naturalist John Shafer says a lot of amphibians go through chemical and physiological changes to protect their cells during winter’s cold. Because there is moisture in cells, if that moisture freezes and expands in the winter, cell walls could pop. Certain amphibians have developed something that amounts to cellular antifreeze to keep that from happening.

It’s well-known that bears just don’t bother with winter at all and go into a period of hibernation. Of course, we don’t see many bears here in Fairfax County, but we do have one local hibernator — woodchucks. Don’t bother looking for them again until spring.

Some animals enter into a hibernation-like state known as brumation. They don’t really sleep like a hibernating bear, but their metabolisms slow way down. When the weather warms, you may see them up and around again, until the next cold front passes through. Chickadees can go through a brumation cycle every night, dropping their body temperatures way down after dark and warming them back up again so they can fly in the morning.

Shafer says gray squirrels are a prime example of animals that go into a state of torpor to shrug off the weather. He explains that in brumation, animals shut down some of their body systems. “Torpor is more like you have the flu and you stay in bed and sleep for three days,” says Shafer. “If you get a snowstorm, you don’t see the squirrels because they’re just like, eh, forget it. When it warms back up, they’ll come out and mess around.”

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Some animals are just naturally good planners and never have to leave their homes to get a winter snack. Tony Bulmer, another of the Park Authority naturalists at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, says that when chipmunks get hungry during the winter, they just eat from their pile of stored food. They can sleep on top of the stockpile and work their way down. “When it’s about done, it’s time to come out,” adds Bulmer.

Beavers like to plan ahead, too. Shafer says, “They store food, usually branches that they shove into the mud under the surface of the water. So, even if the whole pond freezes, they can come out of the lodge in their under-surface entrance, grab the food they’ve cached, just like our chipmunk, and then bring it back into the lodge to eat.”

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You’re also less likely to see turtles popping up for air during the winter. Turtles can go down to the bottom of a pond and dissolve oxygen out of various parts of their skin during the whole winter. Bulmer says they can absorb or exchange just enough oxygen through the water to survive.

Water fowl have yet another coping mechanism. Some ducks and geese can shut certain veins off in their feet to prevent freezing. Bulmer says you might see them standing with one foot out on the ice.

When it comes to insects, you may not see adults flying around, but whatever eggs were laid in the fall are slowly developing into another stage. Those insect eggs can be just about anywhere, in the ground or in the trees.

Many people hope a cold winter will mean fewer of those annoying insects come spring, such as mosquitoes and ticks, but that’s not likely to happen around here. FCPA Ecologist Kristen Sinclair notes, “Everything has a point where it’s going to die, but it has to be really cold for a long time.” And when it comes to ticks, Sinclair says they’re “pretty darn active year round.”

In general, plants are more likely to react badly to temperature changes than animals. For instance, Bulmer says that with trees, “If we get five or six days that are 55 or warmer, it takes them out of the state of rest and they start producing buds. Then, if it freezes again, that can hurt the tree by injuring new buds.” Plants can’t put a bud under a bud, so those early buds can become a sort of dead spot on the plant.

One of the area’s earliest blooming plants is a native that uses chemistry to simply outsmart the weather. Shafer explains, “Skunk cabbage will actually heat up and melt itself a hole in the snow cover early in the spring so it can bloom and come up and get started.” Feel free to marvel at its cleverness, but you probably don’t want to take too big a sniff of this aptly-named plant.

More about winter wildlife

Author Carol Ochs works in the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Public Information Office.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized on by .

About Fairfax County Park Authority

HISTORY: On December 6, 1950, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Park Authority was authorized to make decisions concerning land acquisition, park development and operations in Fairfax County, Virginia. To date, 11 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2008. Another Park Bond Referendum will be held in November 2012. Today, the Park Authority has 420 parks on approximately 23,168 acres of land. We offer 371 miles of trails, our most popular amenity. FACILITIES: The Park System is the primary public mechanism in Fairfax County for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land and resources, areas of historic significance and the provision of recreational facilities and services including: o Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist. o Eight golf courses including Laurel Hill, our newest, upscale course and clubhouse located in Southern Fairfax County o Five nature and visitor centers. Also seven Off-Leash Dog Activity areas o Several lakes including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax o The Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole at Lake Fairfax, Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee as well as an indoor water park at Cub Run RECenter o Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel o An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter o Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel o Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent o A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly o A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale o Natural and cultural resources protected by the Natural Resource Management Plan and Cultural Resource Plans, plus an Invasive Management Area program that targets alien plants and utilizes volunteers in restoring native vegetation throughout our community o Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center o Provides 274 athletic fields, including 30 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 500 school athletic fields PARK AUTHORITY BOARD: • A 12-member citizen board, appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sets policies and priorities for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Visit http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/news2/social-hub/ for Fairfax County Government's Comment Policy.

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