Sleeping the cold away
The eldest indigent boarder has taken on a job this year. I suppose some might argue that this means he is no longer indigent. When he starts paying rent we’ll talk. At this point he is paid a dollar a week to let the chickens out in the morning and seal the coop at night. In recent weeks the temperature has been in the twenties when he has to do the first of these jobs. He is a typical youngster in many ways, so instead of putting on a jacket, he runs as fast as he can.
The chickens don’t seem bothered by the cold either. Their coop stays above freezing except on the coldest nights, but it isn’t really toasty out there. When I first had them I expected to go out and find them standing around a fire barrel mumbling about how they were going to get the man. More than likely they just can’t start a fire.
As naked apes we are not really equipped to deal with the cold as well as the mammals that originally evolved in the north. Sure Homo sapiens were in Europe 40,000 years ago or so, but we’d already started wearing clothes by then. We’re really a warm weather species. The organisms that evolved here know how to deal with cold weather.
Many just seem to deal with it. I’ve seen robins mucking about in the snow. Squirrels don’t hibernate. They do mate in the winter time, so perhaps that’s how they keep warm.
The really interesting creatures to me are the amphibians and the reptiles. I wrote a few months ago about frogs that allow ice crystals to form throughout their bodies. They dig deep into the ground (or find a hole) and slow down their metabolism and wait it out.
Reptiles don’t hibernate strictly speaking, they brumate. They’re cold blooded so as the temperature drops so does their metabolism. As long as they don’t freeze they just get really sluggish. Snakes have to find a place below the frost line where they can hang out. Just imagine happening upon several hundred rattlesnakes brumating. Zoinks.
Terrestrial turtles either burrow themselves or find a nice den and do much the same thing snakes do. Aquatic turtles are in a bit of a bind. The water at the bottom of ponds stays above freezing, but there’s no air down there. Our painted and snapping turtles slow their metabolism down then, to a large extent, stop using oxygen. They can survive using lactic acid fermentation — we do the same when we exercise beyond our aerobic ability. They can do this for months. Many turtles can absorb a little oxygen through capillaries in their skin.
A really astonishing turtle in Australia, the Fitzroy River turtle even absorbs oxygen through its cloacal bursae. The cloaca is a multi-purpose hole in the south end of reptiles (reproduction, waste products, breathing). I am very proud to report that none of our turtles are butt-breathers. They’re too dignified for that sort of thing.