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Hibernation

Black Bears Emerging From Dens & Ejecting Fecal Plugs

This may look like Black Bear scat to many viewers and it is close to being just that, but technically it is a fecal plug.  A plug differs from scat in several ways.  Rather than passing through and out of the digestive system, it remains in the lower 7-15” of a bear’s intestine for four or five months, while the bear hibernates.  Unlike feces, which consist mostly of waste from digested food, a fecal plug, due to the length of time it spends in the intestine, contains a considerable amount of intestinal secretions and cells that have sloughed off the inside of the digestive tract.

Usually you find hair and bedding as well as recently-eaten indigestible food incorporated into a plug.  Prior to hibernation, Black Bears engage in grooming — licking and swallowing their fur and the leaves, etc. that are caught in it.  These indigestible materials end up in the plug.  During winter bears shed the calloused soles, or footpads, of their feet and it’s not uncommon to find pieces of them in a plug, as well.

Most plugs measure 1 ½” to 2 ½” in diameter and  7-15″ long. Fluids have been absorbed from the plug by the intestinal walls, leaving it quite dry and hard, and it has very little scent. If you happen to know where a bear has denned, the surroundings are a prime location for finding a plug, as the bear ejects it soon after emerging from its den in April. (Thanks to Andy Rowles and Erin Donahue for photo op.)

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Common Gartersnakes Mating

During these first days of April, Common Gartersnakes emerge from their hibernacula and often bask in the sun near the den where they spent the winter.  (At this time they are more approachable than later in the season, should you desire a close look at one.)  Males usually appear first; when the females appear, the males follow them in hot pursuit.

Common Gartersnakes are known for their impressive courtship ritual.  Prior to copulation, as many as a hundred males will often writhe around a single female, forming a mass which is referred to as a “mating ball.”  The male closest to the female rubs his chin on the head, back and sides of the female while aligning himself with her and eventually mating takes place.  When it does, the other males that were in the mating ball leave and seek out other females.  Female gartersnakes mate once; male may mate with several females.  (Photo by Sally Fellows)

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Black Bears Active

Bears are emerging from hibernation a bit earlier than usual this year in Russia, Finland and the U.S. due to warmer temperatures.  The emergence of Black Bears from hibernation in the Northeast usually takes place next month, but they have already been active for several weeks, even in northern New England.

There is little food available to bears in April, but in March the situation is even more dire.  Therefore, bird feeders and human garbage are like bear magnets, so bring in your feeders and make your garbage inaccessible! The climate crisis is having a detrimental effect on wildlife — hibernation, migration and breeding cycles are intimately connected to the availability of food — and as a result of this out-of-sync timing, there will inevitably be more conflict between bears and humans.  (Photo: Black Bear scat filled with sunflower seeds from a bird feeder.  Thanks to Clyde Jenne and Bruce Locke for photo op.)

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American Toads Preparing For Winter

In the Northeast, sometime in September or October you realize that you’re no longer seeing American Toads.  This is because they are taking steps that allow them to survive over the winter.  These steps consist of either finding another animal’s burrow or digging their own (up to 20 inches or so deep) in order to hibernate below the frost line.

As the photograph illustrates, toads dig their tunnels facing forward, using their hind legs to do the digging.  Special hardened knobs on their hind feet assist them in this endeavor. As they dig deeper, the tunnel in front of them collapses.  When deep enough to hopefully avoid being frozen, they stop digging and hibernate until the soil begins to warm.  Come April or May, American Toads dig their way up to the surface of the ground and head for breeding ponds. (Photo by Ashley Wolff)

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Woodchucks Fattening Up

This Woodchuck is doing what Woodchucks do this time of year – eating fast and furiously, and putting on fat equaling about a third of their weight (granted, an apple has only a tiny fraction of a gram of fat, but every bit helps).  Accumulation of fat is essential if they are to survive months of hibernation.  It’s not known what stimulates this increase in appetite, but most likely photoperiod (length of day) plays a part.

Soon these rodents will seek shelter in their winter burrows, where their heart rate is reduced from 100 beats per minute to 15 and their temperature drops from 96 F. degrees to 47 F. degrees.  During hibernation, they lose roughly 20% to 47% of their body weight.  Those Woodchucks not able to accumulate sufficient fat reserves may not survive the three or four months of hibernation that take place in the Northeast. (Photo by Erin Donahue)

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Painted Turtles Basking

5-1-19 painted turtle_U1A7417Water temperature of fifty-nine degrees Fahrenheit is the magic number for Painted Turtles in the fall. Below it, their metabolism slows to a near standstill – their heartbeat slows to only one beat every few minutes and they do not breathe through their lungs (if conditions allow, they may absorb oxygen dissolved in the water through specialized skin cells near the tail). Their body temperature averages 43°F. when hibernating in the mud at the bottom of ponds. Occasionally a Painted Turtle is seen swimming under the ice, but for the most part, hibernation rules from October to April in northern New England.

When the water reaches 59°F.- 64°F. in the spring, Painted Turtles become active again. In addition to foraging, they immediately start basking in the sun. Being cold-blooded, or ectothermic, they need this external source of heat to warm their body, but the UV light also regulates their metabolism and breeding as well as helps produce Vitamin D3, which is essential for the health of their bones as well as their internal organs.

Basking can also help relieve aquatic turtles of ectoparasites. Leeches are a blood-sucking ectoparasite that can cause anemia in reptiles. Drying out in the sun causes the leeches to shrivel up and die. Algae on basking aquatic turtles can also dry out and fall off, allowing the shells to retain their aerodynamic nature.

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Time To Take Down Bird Feeders !

3-25-19 black bears 1214Black Bears have just started to emerge from hibernation in northern New England, and their appetite is fierce. Male black bears will typically drop between 15 and 30 percent of their body weight, while reproductive sows can lose up to 40 percent of their weight over the winter. Although omnivores, a black bear’s diet consists of 85 percent plant material, especially in the spring and summer. At this time of year bears favor the tender emerging shoots of sedge and grasses, willow catkins, leaf buds and skunk cabbage. However, these plants are not always available to them when they first become active. Being opportunists, if bears can’t find natural food sources, they go looking for alternatives, such as those provided by humans.

Sunflower seeds are a Black Bear’s dream come true, nutritionally speaking. A bird feeder full of them replaces hours of foraging in the wild. With an outstanding sense of smell (many times greater than a bloodhound’s), Black Bears will find and raid feeders at this time of year when there is a lack of other food sources. Therefore, if you wish to avoid creating a “nuisance” bear, it is advisable to take down your feeders by April 1st. Black Bears have excellent memories, particularly regarding food sources. They will return time after time, and may resort to unwanted (by humans) behavior in order to get more of the food that was at one time available. Once this occurs, their well-being is jeopardized.

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Male Woodchucks Out and About

2-22-19 woodchuck burrow IMG_0555Hibernation, the true slowing down of one’s metabolism (a Woodchuck’s body temperature drops from 99 degrees F. to 40 degrees F. and its heartbeat drops from 100 beats per minute to 4 beats per minute) is one way an animal conserves energy. Male and female Woodchucks use the energy they’ve conserved very differently in early spring.

At the end of February and in March, males arouse themselves about a month prior to the mating season and spend long periods visiting females and defending their territory. Muddy tracks and trails can be seen near their winter burrows (see photo) at this time of year. Females remain in their burrows in a state of hibernation, saving as much energy as possible for the birth and raising of their young. After confirming the presence of females on their territories, males return to their burrows for the next month or so, awakening along with the females in time for their mating season.

The timing of Woodchuck procreation is not a relaxed affair. It is quite precise, in fact, for very good reasons. If Woodchucks mate too early in the spring, their young won’t be able to find food once they are weaned. If they mate too late, their young won’t have the time necessary for putting on weight and storing fat before hibernation begins. Now is the time to look for signs indicating male Woodchuck activity near their winter woodland burrows.

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Fermenting Apples & Black Bears ≠ Inebriation

11-5-18 bear scat MH_20091011_233455_4If you investigate the contents of Black Bear scat this time of year, you may well find nothing but chunks of digested and semi-digested apple (pictured).  For several weeks before hibernation begins bears spend their days and nights foraging for food that will sustain them through the coming months (“hyperphagia”).  Fermenting apples lying on the ground are accessible and very popular with bears; hence, many scats contain them.

There have been anecdotal reports over the years of Black Bears stumbling around as if inebriated, and it is often assumed that this behavior is the result of their having consumed fermenting fruit, such as apples.  Waxwings, robins and other species of birds are known to get drunk (and even die) from fermented crab apples, mountain ash and blackberries, but it’s highly unlikely that bears follow suit.

For one thing, the pH of a bear’s stomach is around 3.5 – slightly more acidic than yeast can tolerate. In addition, the time it takes for a Black Bear to digest food is typically far less time than yeast would need to convert sugar into alcohol. Lastly, size would play a large role in an animal’s ability to become intoxicated. It would take hundreds of apples consumed at their peak level of fermentation to make even a small, young Black Bear even slightly tipsy.

If you see a Black Bear stumbling and acting strange it may well be because it is sleepy or perhaps sick, but probably not drunk. However, until researchers test the blood alcohol level of a bear that’s exhibited this behavior, no–one can say for sure what caused it.

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Black Bears Emerging From Hibernation

3-26-18 black bears sleeping 1545

A year ago, in April 2017, while following Black Bear tracks in New Hampshire, I had the good fortune to encounter the bears themselves. Because Black Bears have started coming out of hibernation (April is when most do so) I felt it was timely to share some of my photographs and observations of that encounter. (I did not do so a year ago for fear of bringing attention to and thereby disturbing these bears.)  As I followed the bear tracks, I eventually came upon a refuge, or “babysitter,” tree – where bears rest and cubs/yearlings take refuge when their mother goes off foraging or when she senses danger. I had read about such trees, but never discovered one myself. It was very recognizable — a very large White Pine surrounded on the ground by bear scat and gnawed saplings – fresh signs that bears frequented this area. At the base of the tree were several large “bowls” or indentations in the pine needles that looked as if large animals might have bedded down repeatedly in them, forming nests.

I continued tracking, eventually turning around to head back to where I entered the woods. On my return I passed by the babysitter tree again. To my utter delight I discovered a mother bear with her three yearlings fast asleep in the beds at the base of the tree. It was snowing lightly, and I surmised that this family had recently emerged from their deep winter’s sleep and was still a bit groggy. (Adult males are the first to emerge; females with cubs are the last.) While the yearlings slept on, the mother opened her eyes and decided to tolerate my presence for the next couple of hours. In Naturally Curious posts this week and next, I will share this once-in-a-lifetime experience with you as well as the behavioral observations I made.

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Happy Groundhog Day !

2-2-18 woodchuck IMG_2381The Woodchuck, or Groundhog, is one lucky creature, considering past practices. The observation of “Groundhog Day” originated in the mid-1800’s, and by the late 1800’s and early 1900’s the celebration consisted of feasting on this rodent. A formalized hunt took place and participants then dined on Groundhog (which purportedly tastes like a cross between chicken and pork) and drank Groundhog punch. Since then, the Groundhog has evolved into a forecaster of weather, rather than a meal.

While New England Woodchucks are curled up in their hibernacula,  Punxsutawney Phil is busy seeing if he can see his shadow today (in which case we’re in for six more weeks of winter) or whether cloudy skies will prevent that from happening and spring is right around the corner. I’d bet on the former.

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Black Bears Foraging

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This is the time of year when Black Bears are looking for every available source of food in order to bulk up before entering hibernation. During this period of gorging (hyperphagia) Black Bears consume large quantities of fruits, berries, nuts, grasses, roots and insects.

In particular, they favor the brood (larvae and pupae) of ants, due to their relatively high content of fat and protein. Black Bears find brood by detecting the pheromones and other chemicals such as formic acid that ants use for communication and defense. Research has confirmed that Black Bears will dig up as many as 200 ant colonies a day, flipping rocks, moss and leaf litter over and tearing apart logs, stumps and snags (such as the one pictured), using their canine teeth and claws to gain access to the ants. Once they have torn apart the stump or snag, they use their long, sticky tongues to gather brood. Anthills are avoided except for when Black Bears are extremely hungry, due to the fact that bears prefer not to get a lot of soil or sand mixed in with the brood they’re eating. (Thanks to Virginia Barlow for photo op.)


This Year’s Black Bear Cubs Growing Up Fast

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It’s hard to believe that four months ago when it was born this Black Bear cub weighed less than a pound and measured about eight inches in length! Most Black Bears mate in June, but because of delayed implantation their fertilized eggs don’t implant in the uterine wall and the embryos don’t begin developing until the fall (if the mother has had a sufficiently nutritional diet), just as the mother is entering hibernation.

The cubs are born in January, after only a few months inside their mother. They are just a fraction of one percent of the mother bear’s weight, compared to an average human baby that is about seven percent of its mother’s weight. The cubs nurse constantly for the next four months (during which time their mother is not eating or drinking).  The fat content of Black Bear milk can be as high as 20-25 percent. Human milk is comparable to cows’ milk, generally ranging between three and five percent fat. (A biologist who had the opportunity to sample Black Bear milk reported that it was similar in taste to sweetened condensed milk.)

In April, when the cubs emerge from their den, they weigh about six pounds.  Milk production and intake now increases four-fold. Peak lactation (45 ounces of milk per day per cub) occurs in June and July. As a result, the cubs have a huge growth spurt their first summer and will weigh between 40 and 60 pounds by the end of it.

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Mourning Cloaks Surviving On Sap

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Who doesn’t celebrate at the sight of a Mourning Cloak butterfly gliding through the woods on soft, spring breezes? Because the adults spend the winter hibernating behind loose bark, Mourning Cloaks are among the first butterflies to take flight in the spring. Most butterflies overwinter as eggs or pupae inside chrysalises, and have to complete metamorphosis before they can take to the air.

Surviving in March and April, when there is little, if any, nectar to be found, is challenging. Mourning Cloaks sustain themselves with the sap that exudes from broken tree branches or wounds in tree trunks. Oaks are their preferred source of sap. When they find some, they walk down the trunk to the sap and feed head downward (see photo).

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Boxelder Bugs Active

4-6-17 boxelder bugs 095You may have noticed ½-inch-long black insects with red markings emerging from cracks and crevices inside or outside your home with the recent arrival of warmer weather. These are adult Boxelder Bugs that have been hibernating all winter and have become active with the warming days. They may disappear on days such as today when the weather turns cold again, but they’ll emerge for good in late April or May, just about the time buds on Boxelder trees are beginning to open.

During the spring and early summer they seek out and feed on low vegetation and seeds on the ground. Starting in mid‑July, they move to female seed-bearing Boxelder trees (or occasionally other maple or ash trees) where they lay eggs on trunks, branches, and leaves.  Red nymphs hatch in roughly two weeks, and proceed, like their parents, to feed on Boxelder foliage and seeds by using their piercing-sucking mouthparts. Even if their numbers are large, there is no noticeable feeding injury to these trees.   Come fall both adults and nymphs congregate in large numbers on the south side of trees, buildings and rocks exposed to the sun (only adults survive the winter) before settling in a protected hibernaculum. Boxelder Bugs are most abundant during hot, dry summers followed by warm springs. They do not bite people and are essentially harmless to property.  (Photo: adult Boxelder Bugs in spring; insert – adults and nymphs in fall) Thanks to Jeannie Killam for photo op.

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Woodchucks Active

3-15-17 woodchuck burrow IMG_0618Our recent snowstorm will make it a bit more challenging for male Woodchucks intent on mating, for they must work their way up through a foot or more of snow upon wakening. In March and April they come out of hibernation having lost 20 – 40 percent of their weight over the winter. Even so, sex is the driving force, not food, which is fortunate, as there is little for them to eat this early in the spring. Males dig their way out of their burrows and head straight for the burrows of females.   After mating, the female goes back to sleep for several weeks and the male returns to his burrow and does the same. Snow makes these tunnels much more obvious and thus easier to find, as dirt is scattered around their entrances. Equally obvious are the muddy trails males leave when in search of females.

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Black Bears Emerging From Hibernation

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Time to take in bird feeders, at least at night. Black Bear sightings are being reported throughout northern New England, a bit earlier than usual probably due to the erratic weather we’ve been having. Adult males emerge from their dens first, females with cubs  last – the opposite order in which they entered in the fall.

Having survived the winter by living off the fat they accumulated last fall, Black Bears weigh considerably less upon waking. Males will typically drop between 15 and 30 percent of their body weight, while lactating mothers can lose up to 40 percent. Even so, for the first two or three weeks following hibernation, bears eat and drink less than they normally do, while their metabolism adjusts to the changes. This is referred to as “walking hibernation” by some biologists. Once normal activity resumes, and until herbaceous green shoots appear in wetlands, bird feeders  are a main attraction.

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Woodchuck Hibernation

2-2-17-woodchuck-280As fun as it would be to see a Woodchuck on Groundhog Day, it’s not likely to occur in New England, even taking into account climate change, at least not yet. Rather than migrate or remain active and adapt to winter conditions, Woodchucks lower their metabolism and hibernate through the winter.   Their heart rate, body temperature and breathing rate are decreased significantly in order to conserve energy.

One assumes that once a hibernating animal’s metabolism is lowered, it remains lowered for the duration of hibernation. However, it turns out that this is not the case. All of the species of hibernators that have been studied have woken up periodically throughout the winter and warmed themselves up. During these two-three day (on average) arousals, the Woodchuck’s body temperature (roughly 38°F. during hibernation) rises to 98.6°F., its normal temperature during the summer. During these arousal times Woodchucks do not eat. Rather, they rely on deposits of stored body fat, which results in their losing about 40 percent of their body mass by the time green plants are available in the spring. Woodchucks’ bouts of hibernation are initially short, then they lengthen to an average of eight days, and then shorten again as the season progresses.

Arousal consumes a lot of energy (a single arousal may consume as much energy as ten days of hibernation) so it must have a crucial function. Theories regarding this function include restoration of depleted nutrients in the blood, invigoration of immune system, elimination of toxic substances, dealing with potassium loss and facilitation of sperm production in males. As of today, however, the reason for this arousal phenomenon has not been determined.

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Leopard Frogs – Too Little, Too Late

leopard-frogs-in-puddle-by-kelly-maginnis-northampton-ma-12-10-16At this time of year one would expect to find Leopard Frogs lying on the bottom of a pond, partially but not completely covered with leaves or mud as they hibernate their way through winter. Because of the depth of a pond, and the fact that in winter the water temperature is around 39°F., ice isn’t an issue at the bottom of a pond, and the frogs and turtles that overwinter there don’t usually freeze.

However, sometimes ponds freeze over before amphibians or reptiles that overwinter in them arrive at their hibernacula. Apparently this is what happened to these Leopard Frogs, and they took refuge in the only open body of water they could find – a large but shallow puddle about 10’ wide by 20’ long in a dirt road. Shortly after they arrived temperatures dropped and the frogs were trapped under (and eventually will be encased in) the ice. Unlike Wood Frogs, Spring Peepers and Gray Treefrogs, Leopard Frogs are not freeze tolerant, so their demise is inevitable. (Thanks to Kelly Maginnis for photo, and Jim Andrews for his herpetological expertise.)

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Black Bears Gorging

10-28-16-corn-203Black bears are omnivores as well as opportunists.  They will eat almost anything that they can find, but the majority of their diet consists of grasses, roots, berries, nuts and insects (particularly the larvae).  As the days cool, and the time for hibernation nears, black bears enter a stage called “hyperphagia,” which literally means “excessive eating.”  They forage practically non-stop — up to 20 hours a day, building up fat reserves for hibernation, increasing their body weight up to 100% in some extreme cases.  Their daily food intake goes from 8,000 to 15-20,000 calories. Occasionally their eyes are bigger than their stomachs, and all that they’ve eaten comes back up.  Pictured is the aftermath of a Black Bear’s orgy in a cornfield.

If you  share a bear’s territory, be forewarned that they have excellent memories, especially for food sources.  Be sure not to leave food scraps or pet food outside and either delay feeding birds until bears are hibernating (late December would be safe most years) or take your feeders in at night.

NOTE:  Orders for 2017 Naturally Curious calendars must be received by October 31.

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Wood Frogs & Spring Peepers On The Move

3-29-16 road frogs 015Although the temperature hovered around 32°F.  last night in central Vermont, wood frogs and spring peepers were on the move.  Usually it is above 40° or 45° before you see the earliest of our breeding amphibians, but a few hardy souls ventured forth to their breeding pools and ponds under cover of darkness and  rain yesterday.  Those that breed in vernal pools are in a hurry to take advantage of every day, as the eggs they lay must complete metamorphosis by the time their pool dries up, often in mid- to late summer.

Both of these species of frogs are freeze tolerant.  Wood frogs are coming out of a state in which they haven’t taken a breath and their heart hasn’t beaten for several months.  Prior to hibernation they convert glycogen in their bodies into glucose, a form of antifreeze that helps prevent the water within their cells from freezing, which would kill them.  However, the water outside their cells does freeze.  Amazingly, wood frogs can survive having up to 65% of this water frozen, yet when warm weather arrives, they thaw and move about in a matter of hours.

If you rescue these woodland amphibians that are crossing roads (where so many of them get run over at night) during their migration to their breeding pools, take note of the temperature of their body.  Often they are still quite cold to the touch — colder than the air, even – which fortunately makes it difficult for them to move fast enough to escape your helping hands. (Photo: Amorous wood frogs getting a head start as they cross a road to get to breeding pool.)

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Painted Turtles Basking

3-23-16 painted turtles 033Being an aquatic species, most painted turtles hibernate in the mud at the bottom of ponds. They dig down as far as ten feet where they spend the winter hovering around 43°.  In the spring, when the temperature of the water approaches 60°, painted turtles begin actively foraging, but the first priority upon awakening is to warm up their bodies.  Turtles are ectothermic, or cold-blooded, thus the temperature of their bodies is determined by the  environment that surrounds them.  To be active, painted turtles must maintain an internal temperature of 63°- 73°.  They reach and maintain this temperature by basking in the sun, particularly in the cold, first weeks of spring.  Once warmed up, the turtles will forage, and when they begin to cool off, basking resumes.

Competition for basking sites such as floating logs and rocks can be fierce.  It is not unusual to see many painted turtles lined up on a floating log, or turtles piled one upon the other on a rock in an effort to maximize the effect of the sun’s rays.  The heat they’re obtaining increases their metabolism, aids in digestion and allows males to start producing sperm.  The sun also strengthens their shells and reduces the amount of algae on them, thereby reducing the chances of bacterial or fungal infection.

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Woolly Bears Wandering

3-15-16 woolly bear 119 Woolly bears (larvae of the Isabella tiger moth) are on the march again- several weeks before I have seen them in past years, no doubt due to the warm weather we’ve experienced lately. They are one of the few moths or butterflies that overwinter as caterpillars. In the fall, often around the time of the first frost in the Northeast, woolly bears are often seen crossing roads as they wander frenetically prior to hibernation. At this time their body produces a chemical called a cryoprotectant that acts like an anti-freeze which protects living tissue against damage from freezing and thawing. They remain curled up in a protected spot, such as in leaf litter or under loose bark, nearly frozen solid all winter. When spring arrives and the temperature reaches the high 40’s and 50’s they become active again, feed for a few days, and then pupate inside a cocoon made with their own bristles. Adult Isabella tiger moths emerge in about a month, anywhere between April and June, mate, and lay eggs. Within two weeks the eggs hatch. In New England a second generation of woolly bears will be produced and these are the larvae that overwinter. (In even colder regions, such as the Arctic, there isn’t enough time for woolly bear caterpillars to consume enough food to achieve adulthood within a year, so they spend several summers feeding, hibernating each winter, for up to 14 years.)

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Green Frogs About To Take The Plunge

11-9-15 A. bullfrog 005Most Green Frogs have disappeared over the last few weeks, but this male (eardrum, or tympanum, is larger than his eye) was basking in the last bit of sunshine he will see or feel for the next five or six months. Soon he will take the plunge and bury himself in leaf litter at the bottom of the pond or lay, partially exposed, on the mud beneath the leaves. (Green frogs typically hibernate in water, but occasionally overwinter on unfrozen stream beds or seeps, as well as underground.) Aquatic turtles can shut down their metabolism to a greater extent than frogs, so they are able to survive hibernation buried in mud, where there is little oxygen, but frogs overwintering in a pond must have their skin at least partially in contact with oxygen-rich water. Green frog tadpoles will typically, but not always, overwinter prior to metamorphosing the following spring.

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