Wildlife In Winter & Climate Change

American Dipper Peter Hart, Photographer Photo credit: PEHart via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA
American Dipper
Peter Hart, Photographer
Photo credit: PEHart via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA
Last Saturday 3 intrepid young families joined us for a morning with the Stokes Nature Center slipping and sliding along a canyon trail to discover animal and plant adaptations to survive the winter. We marveled at the American dipper as it enjoyed plunging in icy water hoping to capture its prey. The dipper remains dry due to a super-sized uropygial gland used for waterproofing its feathers as it preens combined with a thick layer of super isolative fur like feathers. Its temperature actually drops in extreme cold reducing radiated heat loss.

Water reptiles and amphibians were in deep sleep in their mud cocoons. They manage winter through slowing metabolic processes which greatly reduces their need for oxygen, nutrition and waste elimination. What little oxygen needed can be absorbed through their skin without breathing.

Animals such as bears can go into an alternate, light hibernation state called a torpor. Torpor is like hibernation, but in this condition, the bear can be awakened easily. I was reminded of this fact from a friend tagging bear cubs in Book Cliffs of eastern Utah. She would enter the bear din very gingerly trying not to awaken a grumpy mom! Ground squirrels are also among animals who torpor, however they shift between hibernation, torpor, and being awake.

The common poorwill, an uncommon bird in Utah Mountains, is the only bird that goes into true hibernation. It hibernates during extreme temperatures — when it is either too hot or too cold — and at times of food scarcity. The common poorwill can even hibernate while they are incubating eggs, proving to be not only a true survivor, but also a riveting multitasking animal.

Grouse Snow Angel Exiting Subnivean Cave Courtesy US FWS & Wikimedia, Tamarac Refuge, MN
Grouse Snow Angel Exiting Subnivean Cave
Courtesy US FWS & Wikimedia, Tamarac Refuge, MN
Snow is an excellent insulator where many of our more active animals spend most of their winters in subnivean (beneath the snow) environments. Mice, voles, and shrews retreat here for protection from cold temperatures, bitter winds, and hungry predators. Food is right at hand: grass, leaves, bark, seeds, and insects are free and unfrozen. These tiny mammals create long tunnel systems complete with air shafts to the surface above. Perhaps you’ve seen the pocket gopher tunnels revealed as the snow retreats- a snaking ridge of soil creating some interesting, artistic patterns.

Short-tailed weasels, also known in winter as ermine, have a long, slender body shape that allows them to invade subnivean tunnels to prey upon smaller mammals.Photographer: Steven HintCourtesy WikimediaLicensed under Cc-by-sa-3.0
Short-tailed weasels, also known in winter as ermine, have a long, slender body shape that allows them to invade subnivean tunnels to prey upon smaller mammals.
Photographer: Steven Hint
Courtesy Wikimedia
Licensed under Cc-by-sa-3.0
It takes only six inches of snow for mice, voles, and shrews to have a sturdy roof over their heads and roomy living quarters below. Add another two inches and the subnivean zone remains within a degree or two of 32°F, regardless of the temperature and weather conditions in the outside world.

Living under the snow is not without risk. Owls can hear mice and voles running around underground from thirty yards away. With balled-up feet, they crash through the top crust and all the layers of snow to grab their prey. Foxes and coyotes detect by scent. With an acrobatic pounce, these predators will dive right in for their meal. Suffocation is a hazard for those left behind in a collapsed tunnel.

So what happens to these little critters in a low snow-no snow winter becoming more common in a changing climate? I’m guessing a much higher rate of mortality which may not bode well for those bigger critters- hawks, owls, fox, coyote, etc., who munch them.

This is Jack Greene and I’m Wild about Utah!!

Credits:

Images: Peter Hart, Photographer, Photo credit: PEHart via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA
Courtesy Wikimedia Steve Hint, Photographer, Licensed under Cc-by-sa-3.0
Courtesy US FWS Digital Library
Text:     Jack Greene

Sources & Additional Reading:

Larese-Casanova, Mark, The Shape of Wildlife in Winter, Wild About Utah, Jan 26,2012, https://wildaboututah.org/the-shape-of-wildlife-in-winter/

Mackay, Barbara, The Subnivean Zone: Shelter in the Snow, Northern Woodlands, Dec 29, 2014, https://wildaboututah.org/the-shape-of-wildlife-in-winter/

Peering into the secret world of life beneath winter snows, National Science Foundation,
https://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=136986

Snow Tracks, National Wildlife Refuge System, https://www.fws.gov/refuges/features/SnowTracks.html

Glacier National Park:
Winter Wanderings, https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/education/winter-wanderings.htm
Winter Ecology Teacher’s Guide https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/education/upload/Winter%20Ecology%20Teacher%20Guide%202010.pdf
Subnivean Samba: https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/education/subnivean-samba.htm
4-6, Unit Five, Activity 1: “Snug in the Snow” https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/education/4-6-unit-five-activity-1-snug-in-the-snow.htm
Winter’s Coming!, https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/education/classrooms/winters-coming.htm
Winter Ecology, Preparing for your Trip, 3rd-5th Grade Field Trip, https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/education/upload/3rd-5th-winter-field-trip_GNP.pdf

Rocky Mountain National Park:
Winter Ecology Teacher Guide, https://www.nps.gov/romo/learn/education/upload/Winter-Ecology-Teacher-Guide-for-web.pdf

Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve:
Lesson Plan, Prepare for Cold Air!, https://www.nps.gov/teachers/classrooms/prepare-for-cold-air.htm

Helping you share Utah’s natural world!, Utah Nature Explorers, Utah Master Naturalist Program, https://extension.usu.edu/utahnatureexplorers/index

Porpora, Alex, Butts, Neicca, Larese-Casanova, Mark, An Introduction to Nature Journals, Utah Master Naturalist Program, https://extension.usu.edu/utahnatureexplorers/pdflessonplans/generalnature/naturejournaling/Nature%20Journaling.pdf

There is a Giant Among Us–The Great Salt Lake

A Giant Among Us, The Great Salt Lake: The Great Salt Lake Breach
The Great Salt Lake Breach
Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey
Department of the Interior/USGS
Mike Freeman, Photographer
10 Nov 2015
Water flowing through the Great Salt Lake breach in 2011, when lake levels were high due to above average snowfall in the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains. The Great Salt Lake breach is an area that allows water to travel between the southern and northern parts of the lake.
There is a giant among us with a profound influence on our past, present, and future. My first encounter with this giant was both buoyant and delightful as I floated in the brine on a lovely summer day. But I was oblivious to the Great Salt Lake’s immense value as an environmental, cultural, and economic resource.

A Giant Among Us–The Great Salt Lake

Much of what follows is taken from a very recently released collaborative study titled “Impacts of Water Development on Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Front” which was a collaborative effort from four institutions(Utah State University, Utah Division of Water Resources, Salt Lake Community College, and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.)

A 2012 analysis by Bioeconomics estimated the economic value of the lake at $1.32 billion per year for mineral extraction, brine shrimp cyst production, and recreation. The abundant food and wetlands of the lake attract 3 million shorebirds, as many as 1.7 million eared grebes, and hundreds of thousands of waterfowl during spring and fall migrations. Because of this, it has been designated as a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network Site. Due to its enormous surface area, it produces the “lake affect” which enhances our snow pack by an estimated 8%, a significant amount for both skiers and our available water. But our giant is shrinking.

Since the arrival of 19th Century pioneers water diversions for irrigation have decreased its elevation by 11 feet exposing much of the lake bed. Natural fluctuations in rainfall and river flow cause the lake level to rise and fall, but there has been no significant long‐term change in precipitation and water supply from the main tributaries since their coming in 1847.

The Great Salt Lake Breach 2015
The Great Salt Lake Breach
Credit: U.S. Geological Survey
Department of the Interior/USGS
Mike Freeman, Photographer
10 Nov 2015

For the first time since it was opened in 1984, water has stopped flowing through the Great Salt Lake causeway breach, an area that allows water to travel between the southern and northern parts of the lake.
To significantly reduce water use, a balanced conservation ethic needs to consider all uses, including agriculture, which consumes 63 percent of the water in the Great Salt Lake Basin. There are no water rights to protect our Great Lake, so water development currently focuses solely on whether there is water upstream to divert. If future water projects reduce the supply of water to the lake, (such as the Bear River Development Project, its level will (most likely) continue to drop.

We must look beyond the next few decades and decide how we value the lake for future generations. Lower lake levels will increase dust pollution and related human health impacts, and reduce industrial and environmental function of Great Salt Lake. We must be willing to make decisions now that preserve Great Salt Lake’s benefits and mitigate its negative impacts into the coming centuries.

John Muir, one of my favorite early American naturalists would most certainly agree with me. From his baptismal plunge into the Great Salt Lake. “I found myself undressed as someone else had taken me in hand and got myself into right lusty relationship with the brave old lake. I was conscious only of a joyous exhilaration….”
And where else could John and I have such a wonderfully buoyant experience?

This is Jack Greene reading for Wild About Utah.

2015 Great Salt Lake Breach at Lakeside, Utah
Gauge near the Great Salt Lake Breach
Credit: U.S. Geological Survey
Department of the Interior/USGS
Mike Freeman, Photographer
10 Nov 2015
A gauge to measure lake water levels stands dry in the lake bed of the Great Salt Lake. For the first time since it was opened in 1984, water has stopped flowing through the Great Salt Lake causeway breach, an area that allows water to travel between the southern and northern parts of the lake.
Credits:
Image: Courtesy U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey(USGS), gallery.usgs.gov
Text:     Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society & USU Office of Sustainability

Additional Reading:

Great Salt Lake, Utah, Stephens, Doyle W. and Gardner, Joe, USGS Science for a Changing World, http://pubs.usgs.gov/wri/wri994189/PDF/WRI99-4189.pdf

Great Salt Lake Footprint 2001 vs 2003 Comparison
Great Salt Lake Footprint Comparison
2001 vs 2003
Images Courtesy NASA
NASA’s Earth Observatory

Seasonal Changes, Amazing Adaptations

Seasonal Changes, Amazing Adaptations: Click for a larger view of a Dark-eyed 'Oregon' Junco Male, Junco hyemalis montanus, Courtesy and copyright 2008 Ryan P. O'Donnell
Dark-eyed Junco “Oregon” Male
Junco hyemalis montanus
Courtesy & © 2008 Ryan P. O’Donnell 
Biking daily from Smithfield Canyon to USU campus, combined with an early am run, I’m well aware of the drop in temperatures, as are those of us who find themselves outdoors on a more permanent schedule. I’m speaking of our relatives who reside in the wild- birds, trees, raccoons, and such.

While I put on an extra layer or two, plants and animals have far more sophisticated adaptations from behavioral to physiological to structural.

We are all aware of the marvelous migration and hibernation behaviors, so let’s add a few more amazing adaptations to the list.

I’ll begin with a bird that is very common at our winter feeder- the Dark-eyed Junco. which responds to the first shortening days of summer with a series of physical changes: its reproductive organs become inactive and shrink in size, hormones stimulate the rapid growth of a new set of feathers, and fat deposits develop to provide fuel for the long migratory flight ahead.

Thus the preparation for migration starts as soon as the days begin to shorten. And the process must operate in reverse when the bird is in its winter habitat in the United States. As soon as days begin to lengthen, the Dark-eyed Junco must gear up physically for the flight north and breeding season. If it fails to do so, it likely won’t survive a long-distance migration. So the cycle of life and its related migrations and transitions are deeply connected to the heavens.

Plants are no less amazing. Those in temperate zones must also set their calendars accurately in order to flower and, for deciduous species, develop and drop leaves at the optimal time. Plants set their internal calendars using several attributes from the sunlight they receive. In fact, the angle of the sun may be more important to a plant than day length.

That’s because plant cells produce compounds called phytochromes in response to different portions of the light spectrum. Direct sunlight is higher in red light, while indirect sunlight contains more far-red light. During late fall and early winter, when the sun remains low in the southern sky, the indirect light produces an increase in far-red phytochromes.

As spring approaches and the arc of the sun rises in the sky, direct sunlight triggers the production of red phytochromes. The ratio of these two compounds mediates the hormones involved in flowering, leaf drop, and bud development. Even seeds below the soil are affected. The amount of red and far-red light that penetrate the soil is sufficient to govern germination.

Some behavioral alterations worth mention beyond migrating and hibernation are herding and flocking, huddling to share body warmth, dietary change, hair & feather change- both color and structure, and many more but my radio time is ending, so now it’s your turn to explore more! It really does make you appreciated the wonders of nature.

This is Jack Greene for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Image: Courtesy and copyright 2008 Ryan P. O’Donnell
Text:     Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society


Additional Reading:

Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis, Aynsley Carroll, Animal Diversity Web, http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Junco_hyemalis/

Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis, Aynsley Carroll, Boreal Songbird Initiative, http://www.borealbirds.org/bird/dark-eyed-junco

https://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=junco+winter+reproductive+cycles

Jigang Lia, Gang Lib, Haiyang Wangb, and Xing Wang Denga, Phytochrome Signaling Mechanisms, The Arabidopsis Book, American Society of Plant Biologists, 2011, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3268501/ pdf

The Great Salt Lake

The Great Salt Lake Breach
The Great Salt Lake Breach
Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey
Department of the Interior/USGS
Mike Freeman, Photographer
10 Nov 2015
Water flowing through the Great Salt Lake breach in 2011, when lake levels were high due to above average snowfall in the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains. The Great Salt Lake breach is an area that allows water to travel between the southern and northern parts of the lake.
There is a giant among us with a profound influence on our past, present, and future. My first encounter with this giant was both buoyant and delightful as I floated in the brine on a lovely summer day. But I was oblivious to the Great Salt Lake’s immense value as an environmental, cultural, and economic resource.

Much of what follows is taken from a very recently released collaborative study titled “Impacts of Water Development on Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Front” which was a collaborative effort from four institutions(Utah State University, Utah Division of Water Resources, Salt Lake Community College, and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.)

A 2012 analysis by Bioeconomics estimated the economic value of the lake at $1.32 billion per year for mineral extraction, brine shrimp cyst production, and recreation. The abundant food and wetlands of the lake attract 3 million shorebirds, as many as 1.7 million eared grebes, and hundreds of thousands of waterfowl during spring and fall migrations. Because of this, it has been designated as a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network Site. Due to its enormous surface area, it produces the “lake affect” which enhances our snow pack by an estimated 8%, a significant amount for both skiers and our available water. But our giant is shrinking.

Since the arrival of 19th Century pioneers water diversions for irrigation have decreased its elevation by 11 feet exposing much of the lake bed. Natural fluctuations in rainfall and river flow cause the lake level to rise and fall, but there has been no significant long‐term change in precipitation and water supply from the main tributaries since their coming in 1847.

The Great Salt Lake Breach 2015
The Great Salt Lake Breach
Credit: U.S. Geological Survey
Department of the Interior/USGS
Mike Freeman, Photographer
10 Nov 2015

For the first time since it was opened in 1984, water has stopped flowing through the Great Salt Lake causeway breach, an area that allows water to travel between the southern and northern parts of the lake.
To significantly reduce water use, a balanced conservation ethic needs to consider all uses, including agriculture, which consumes 63 percent of the water in the Great Salt Lake Basin. There are no water rights to protect our Great Lake, so water development currently focuses solely on whether there is water upstream to divert. If future water projects reduce the supply of water to the lake, (such as the Bear River Development Project, its level will (most likely) continue to drop.

We must look beyond the next few decades and decide how we value the lake for future generations. Lower lake levels will increase dust pollution and related human health impacts, and reduce industrial and environmental function of Great Salt Lake. We must be willing to make decisions now that preserve Great Salt Lake’s benefits and mitigate its negative impacts into the coming centuries.

John Muir, one of my favorite early American naturalists would most certainly agree with me. From his baptismal plunge into the Great Salt Lake. “I found myself undressed as someone else had taken me in hand and got myself into right lusty relationship with the brave old lake. I was conscious only of a joyous exhilaration….”
And where else could John and I have such a wonderfully buoyant experience?

This is Jack Greene reading for Wild About Utah.

2015 Great Salt Lake Breach at Lakeside, Utah
Gauge near the Great Salt Lake Breach
Credit: U.S. Geological Survey
Department of the Interior/USGS
Mike Freeman, Photographer
10 Nov 2015
A gauge to measure lake water levels stands dry in the lake bed of the Great Salt Lake. For the first time since it was opened in 1984, water has stopped flowing through the Great Salt Lake causeway breach, an area that allows water to travel between the southern and northern parts of the lake.
Credits:
Image: Courtesy U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey(USGS), gallery.usgs.gov
Text:     Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society & USU Office of Sustainability

Additional Reading:

Great Salt Lake, Utah, Stephens, Doyle W. and Gardner, Joe, USGS Science for a Changing World, http://pubs.usgs.gov/wri/wri994189/PDF/WRI99-4189.pdf

Great Salt Lake Footprint 2001 vs 2003 Comparison
Great Salt Lake Footprint Comparison
2001 vs 2003
Images Courtesy NASA
NASA’s Earth Observatory