Warm winter could hurt hibernating animals: researcher
Professor Ken Storey, who studies hibernation, at Carleton University's department of biochemistry, says the spring-like weather is fooling frogs into hopping around and singing for mates when they should be frozen in the mud, conserving energy.
"Now it's so warm they've actually come out and they're calling, thinking it's spring," Storey said. "Couldn't be wronger, unfortunately."
|Hibernation or sleep?|
|In winter, many creaturesgo into a very energy-efficient state where theirheart rate,the activity of theirother organs and the chemical processes in their bodies slow dramatically. That way, they can conserve energy while their food sources aren't available. In mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, this is called hibernation. In insects and snails, it's called winter estivation or diapause. Sleep is a different state where those dramatic changes in energy use don't happen.|
Storey said such animals store just enough fuel to make it through the year's coldest months in an energy-efficient state of suspended animation.
At this time of year there is no food to replace the stores they quickly burn up when they are out and about, which will probably leave them skinny and weak come spring.
The green grass and the rushing water in much of eastern Canada this January aren't waking all animals that usually hibernate through the winter.
Storey said groundhogs are deep underground where temperatures stay more constant, and bears use sunlight and thirst, not warm temperatures, as signals that it's springtime.
This year's warm weather has been partly blamed on El Nino, an abnormal system of warm currents in the Pacific Ocean, but global warming could create more warm winters in the future.
Storey said studying the animals that come out of hibernation this year will help researchers predict how they will cope with longer-term climate change.
"If animals are severely impacted by the little bit of global warming that's occurring now or by one El Nino," Storey said, "we'll know more about how the population structures will change over the next 20 to 40 years."