The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has issued an official El Niño warning for this winter based on temperatures in the Pacific Ocean.
An El Niño doesn’t always mean colder temperatures, but it can affect weather patterns in many ways. Tentatively, scientists are saying that the southwestern United States can prepare for more snow. If we do get a much-hoped-for wetter winter, how might that affect the adaptations of much of our wildlife?
The three things animals do to stay alive during winter months is hibernate, migrate and adapt. For those that stay here and awake during the winter, many adaptations, or changes, are made in their behavior or their bodies. Many mammals grow thick warm fur, like the Canada lynx. Some change colors from brown to white to blend in, like the snowshoe hare and short-tailed weasel. All animals must put on a lot of weight and fat in the summer to survive a shortage of food in the winter. Those that rely strictly on this method can be adversely affected by a longer winter if their fat stores don’t hold out.
Many species of birds can adjust their internal body temperature downward to reduce the temperature gradient with environmental temperatures, thus reducing heat loss. They also tend to shiver a lot to maintain body temperatures. Some browsers, such as white-tailed deer, have changes in digestive enzymes to cope with the different food sources. This is one of the reasons why biologists argue against winter deer feeding. If not done correctly, a deer can starve to death because their bodies aren’t equipped during the winter to digest certain kinds of summer food.
The American pika and pine squirrel are masters at caching food during the summer, hiding plants and cones to eat in winter months. We play a game with students at the Nature Center to teach the unique adaptation of the pinyon jay, which have a special ability to triangulate to remember where they bury caches of piñon nuts. They learn how truly amazing it is that these birds can use landmarks to find food storage many months after caching them by remembering landmarks.
Even plants and trees adapt in the winter. Above tree line, the Krummholz pine trees have stunted growth and only grow needles on one side. By looking at them, one can tell the direction in which most storms come. They put all their energy into the side that has the best chance for survival.
Being human and having heaters and grocery stores to get us through the winter, our main adaptation is often how we choose to entertain ourselves. It may be a banner year for winter sports in Colorado. On that note, come get prepared for winter changes by getting in the spirit of the season and supporting Durango Nature Studies.
Our annual winter fundraiser, Mountain Film on Tour, will be held Nov. 21 at the Durango Arts Center, along with a kids’ film matinee. The snow is coming, and we must prepare to adapt to the wonderful place that we live.
Sally Shuffield is executive director of Durango Nature Studies. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 382-9244.