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Is it time for a long winter nap?

Steve Lekwa, Naturally Speaking
Special to the Ames Tribune

The holiday season is all but over. Weather has become more seasonable, in other words, cold and snowy. The pandemic may have an end in sight but is still far from over. Do you feel like it might be time for a long nap?

Maybe you could sleep long enough to wake up to warm spring weather, a pandemic that is mostly history and an economy that has begun to move forward again. Unfortunately, we humans are stuck with often restless sleep and naps that seldom last more than an hour or two even if we’re lucky enough to have that kind of time. Some of our wild neighbors take that long winter nap we might wish for, though.

Only a few creatures hibernate (the really long nap), but many birds and animals enter a shorter form of deep sleep called torpor to help them get through times of extreme temperature and low food availability. Torpor periods may last overnight, a few days, or even a couple of weeks. During this time, body temperatures lower and metabolic rates slow.

Many small winter birds enter this condition every night but rev up their fantastic metabolic rates again with daylight in order to sustain their extremely active daily search for food. Some might not survive long, cold winter nights if they continued to burn energy all night at the rate they do during their active daylight hours.

Skunks, raccoons and chipmunks are animals that sometimes enter periods of torpor to survive rough stretches of winter but typically become active again after a few days. Chipmunks sleep more, are less active than their busy warm weather selves, and usually stay underground in their extensive system of tunnels. They nibble on food supplies they stored away last fall but may emerge on the surface during warm spells.

True hibernators include woodchucks, some ground squirrels, some mice, some bats and cold-blooded reptiles and amphibians. They typically don’t wake up for months. During this time, they consume no food or water. Their respiration, heart rate and other bodily functions slow to extremely low levels. Imagine not getting up to use the bathroom for months.

These creatures survive with body temperatures just above freezing, and, in the case of some amphibians, temperatures may actually drop to slightly below freezing. Prolonged periods of unusual winter warmth may bring them out of hibernation but doom them to starvation. Fat supplies that would normally sustain them during hibernation can be used up long before their normal foods become available if they’re forced to become active too soon.

True hibernators typically build or seek a sheltered place that will maintain stable temperatures just above freezing to spend their long sleep. Dens are often dug below the frost line. Aquatic turtles, some frogs, and other amphibians burrow into pond-bottom muck. They don’t take a single breath of air all winter but absorb the small amount of oxygen they still need directly from the water. Snakes seek hibernaculuma deep into fractured bedrock or deep under rotted stumps or logs. They often return to the same spots year after year.

There’s still a long winter ahead of us. I’d like to stay active enough to enjoy what the season has to offer both indoors and outdoors, but I must admit that there are times I envy some of my wild neighbors that won’t wake up until the world is warm and green again. Maybe I could at least master the art of torpor and sleep away the less pleasant parts of winter.

Sadly, if I did that, I would end up in such poor shape that I couldn’t enjoy spring once it finally arrives. I suppose it’s time to be up and moving again.

Steve Lekwa is the former director of Story County Conservation. Contact him at 4lekwas@midiowa.net.