As the temperature outside begins to drop, noticeable changes take place all around us. Squirrels get busy gathering nuts, leaves change color and begin to drop, and the birds start their journey south. As winter gets closer, we start seeing fewer and fewer animals. The ones that do stick around during the cold months may behave or look differently than before.
Both plants and animals are programmed to face cold weather in several different ways. All living things, including humans, must adapt to their environment in order to survive. Let’s take a closer look at how plants and animals prepare for winter.
Stocking up on supplies
While it is still warm, some animals begin stocking up for winter. Squirrels are busy collecting nuts and hiding them throughout the forest. Months later, these snacks will provide the necessary energy when food is scarce. Other animals, such as mice and beavers, store food in their homes. Honeybees use their supplies of honey collected during warmer months. Most mammals try to eat as much as they can before winter arrives to ensure that they will have extra fat for the winter months. Not only does this keep them warm by providing an extra layer of insulation, but it also keeps them from getting too hungry.
Changing their appearance
Stocking up piles of food is not the only way animals prepare for colder months. Some animals change their appearance to adapt to the weather. Just like we put on winter jackets, some animals’ fur grows thicker and heavier. Other animals’ fur changes color to blend in with their surroundings. Arctic foxes change their fur color from darker colors it the summer to almost completely white in the winter. White-tailed deer become darker brown in color to blend in with the dead plants and leafless trees.
Slowing down and hibernating
During long winter nights, perhaps you like to enjoy some extra time to snuggle under the covers. Animals like bears, skunks, and squirrels also like to stay tucked in during the winter. Many animals hibernate during winter months. Some animals only wake up to look for food or enjoy the occasional warm, winter day. Other animals, like snakes, bats, and groundhogs, go into a much deeper hibernation. During that time, their bodies slow down for months, not waking up until spring. Hibernation allows animals to save their energy, making it unnecessary to look for food when it is scarce. True hibernators sleep so deeply that they may appear dead. A hibernating woodchuck’s heart rate slows from 80 to 4 beats per minute and its temperature drops from 98°F to 38°F.
Another strategy for surviving cold winter months is to head south. Many animals avoid dealing with the challenges of food scarcity by heading to warmer places, where food is more available. Geese are among the most common migratory animals, but many other birds fly south also. Other land animals like caribou and some species of deer also move south for the winter. Whales and several types of fish swim long distances to search for warmer weather. Monarch butterflies are famous for their migration to Mexico each fall. Even earthworms migrate, although it is only as far as six feet below the earth’s surface.
Animals other than mammals and birds also change their behavior in the winter. Fish, frog, snakes and turtles adapt to colder weather by becoming dormant. Frogs and turtles hide under rocks, logs or fallen leaves. Some even bury themselves in the mud. Since cold water holds more oxygen than warmer water, frogs and turtles are able to breathe with the oxygen dissolved in the water.
How plants adapt for cooler temperatures
Animals are not the only living things preparing for winter each year. All summer, plants are busy growing, making and storing food. Unlike animals, plants do not have the option of migrating or hibernating. Plants must adapt to the conditions around them. Trees have an amazing ability to sense changes in weather. They begin to prepare themselves as soon as they recognize the signals that winter is coming. Deciduous trees prepare for dormancy, which is like animal hibernation, by slowing their growth and dropping their leaves. Trees also protect their cells from freezing temperatures by moving water from inside the cell to tiny spaces outside of the cells, which prevents the cells from freezing.
One of the most difficult aspects of winter for plants is that water may be frozen at times, and plants cannot take ice up through their roots. Deciduous plants overcome this lack of water by dropping their leaves each fall. Leaves are the location in which water evaporates from plants. After shedding their leaves, deciduous plants go dormant. Conifers are also adapted to prevent water loss. Their leaves, which look like needles, have thick, waxy coatings that reduce the loss of water from their surface. Some evergreens have special adaptations such as a valve that automatically seals off individual cells that are frozen. This prevents nearby cells from freezing.
Putting these lessons into practice
What changes do you make to prepare for winter? While you are going through your winter checklist – test the furnace, clean the gutters, take stock of your winter gear – think about the preparations the plants and animals are also making in anticipation of colder weather.
Kids need to prepare for winter also. In some areas, winter means bitterly cold weather and shorter hours of daylight. This adds up to more time spent indoors. Stock up on craft and STEM supplies for snow days at home and indoor recess. Welcome the season with these engaging ideas:
Why leaves change color
Demonstrate that the colors they see in autumn are always in the leaves, but not visible in the summer.Explore why leaves change colors and other leaf activities for young learners.
Build winter animal dens
Invite your early elementary students to use their engineering skills tobuild and design animal dens for winter. Prepare by readingbooks about which animals hibernateand how they make their dens.
Why do seasons change?
Usethis hands-on activityto demonstrate that seasonal changes are caused by the tilt of the Earth’s axis.
Track seasonal changes with Journey North
Journey Northis a free, Internet-based program that explores interrelated aspects of seasonal change. Use their resources as part of a large-scale class project or as extension activities for gifted learners or early finishers. Journey North has excellent resources to help students collect, share and analyze evidence about seasonal changes.
Animal migration activity guide
Teach students about animal migrations in the US with this funactivity guide from the National Environmental Education Foundation.The activities encourage students to use STEM skills to plot monarch migration paths, design a birdfeeder, understand the phenomenon of animal migration and get involved with online citizen science.
- Migratory animals split their time between two different “homes.” If you had to travel to a different home to spend part of the year, is there anything you would miss?
- Hibernating animals are deep sleepers. The sleep through all kinds of winter events, like snowstorms, Valentine’s Day and sometimes they even miss the first few warm days of spring. Write about a time when you slept through something important. How did you feel when you woke up and released you missed an event?
- How do you prepare for winter? Do your parents make you try on winter gear from last year? Do you help clean the gutters and bring in the patio furniture? What are some preparations or customs your family shares in preparation for colder weather?
- Nature is always changing. Start a journal to record the changes outdoors as the earth and its creatures prepare for a new season. Make lists of animals that are busy, and animals that you are no longer seeing. How do you see the plants preparing for winter?
Research Project Ideas
- How do animals know when to migrate? How to migratory organisms navigate? What preparations do migratory animals undergo before they begin their journey? Research environmental clues and genetic factors that influence the behaviors of migratory animals. How do they differ among different species? How do they differ among different environments, such as terrestrial and marine ecosystems?
- What laws protect migratory birds? Research legislation that protects migratory birds in the United States.
- How do climate changes affect migratory and hibernating organisms? Use the internet to research the impacts of climate change on organisms as they prepare for the changing of seasons.
Rebecca Reynandez is a Marketing and Communications Consultant and Principal of Spring Media Strategies, LLC. She has worked with nonprofits for the past 10 years and currently focuses on working with environmental organizations. She is based in Minneapolis, MN.