Preparing for Winter


Here we are, November already.  Where has the fall gone?  By this time, of course most everyone has their fall work done in preparation for winter.  And of course we are not the only ones preparing for winter.  The plants and animals have been preparing for winter too.

Animals basically will either migrate, hibernate, or stay and endure it.  Some species will migrate of course.  But migration is not an easy business.  It has its risks, and it is extremely costly in terms of energy.  For some birds, one-half of their body weight needs to be fat when they start their migration.  They have been busy gorging themselves for the migration.  Others must stop occasionally to stoke their biological furnaces in order to make the trip.  Then of course, once they reach their wintering ground, the environment may have changed.

Other animals will avoid the cold temperatures and food scarcity by hibernating.  They also have been busy trying to store up enough energy reserves, in this case, to get through the winter.  Plus they must find suitable denning sites where winter temperatures do not drop significantly below freezing.

Then of course there are those that stay and tough it out.  These animals have also been putting on some fat reserves for the winter and getting their new winter coat to provide warmth during the winter cold.  They likely will also experience some behavioral or physiological adaptations to get them through the winter months.

And although it is perhaps less obvious, the plants have also been preparing for winter.  Most plants in our region go dormant during winter.  But how do they keep from freezing to death when the temperatures are well below zero?

They become tolerant to subfreezing temperatures by a process called acclimation.   The process is complex and not well understood, but it apparently begins in late summer with the translocation of some organic compound(s) such as a sugar or a hormone which is thought to be initiated by shortening days.  The first hard frost is also known to be a major factor.    At any rate, the plant increasingly becomes more “hardy” or resistant to the potentially damaging effects of below freezing temperatures.

So as you travel the region and observe the plants and animals as winter approaches, keep in mind that they have been busy preparing for winter through a variety of strategies and adaptations.  And in many cases, maybe most, they are much better prepared for winter than we are.


Chuck Lura

Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.


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