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Rodents

Beavers See Daylight

4-17-15 beaver 281Imagine sharing dark, damp, cramped living quarters under pond ice with at least three other individuals for four to five months. Then imagine an increasing amount of light filtering through ice that is getting thinner and thinner. Finally the day comes when you are able to break through the ice and crawl out of the water onto land. The sudden brightness and heat provided by the sun, the availability of fresh vegetation to eat and the opportunity to thoroughly groom oneself in the open air must make an unimaginable sensory impact on a beaver in early spring.

Naturally Curious blog will have a brief hiatus until next Thursday, 4/23, so that a Naturally Curious Day by Day (my next adult book) chapter deadline can be met.

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Good Winter For Meadow Voles – Not So Much For Woody Plants

4-16-15  meadow vole sign 009Warming temperatures have revealed the considerable amount of activity that occurred under the protective deep layer of snow this past winter. In addition to a multitude of exposed meadow vole runways, there are ample signs of the voracious appetite of this small rodent. Given that more than 90% of a meadow vole’s diet consists of vegetable matter, that it can eat more than its own body weight in 24 hours, and that it breeds throughout the year, it is no surprise that the bark of many woody plants was consumed this winter, resulting in much girdling, and thus the demise, of many shrubs and saplings.

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Meadow Vole Tunnels Exposed

3-31-15  meadow vole exposed tunnels IMG_3528If you live where the snow is actually melting, a labyrinth of vole tunnels may be revealing itself to you. These tunnels were excavated in the snow next to the ground in what is referred to as the subnivean layer. They lead from sleeping areas to known sources of food, and are advantageous to both mice and voles that travel in them – they provide thermal insulation by protecting them from the wind and cold, and they keep these rodents hidden from predators. Carbon dioxide, which builds up in the subnivean layer from animal respiration as well as CO₂ released from the ground, escapes through ventilation shafts, or air vents, that lead up to the surface of the snow.

Voles stay in these tunnels as long as the snow is deep enough not to expose them, finding food in the form of plants, seeds and bark from bushes and shrubs as they dig through the snow. This winter has provided voles, mice and shrews with an extended period of protection, as hungry barred owls attest to.

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Porcupines Marking Dens

3-25-15 porcupine den IMG_9681Often, at this time of year, porcupines stake out their den trees (if they’re not inhabiting rocky ledges) by eating patches of inner bark, or cambium, with the exposed fresh inner wood announcing their occupancy. Typically, if a tree den is used year after year, they gnaw off a portion of bark each year, sometimes eating the old, scarred portion which, due to previous chewing, lacks cambium cells, indicating that this behavior is not for the purpose of obtaining nutrients. (photo: porcupine chewing near hollow tree den entrance)

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Eastern Chipmunks Up & Active

3-23-15  eastern chipmunk IMG_2146Eastern chipmunks typically emerge above ground in late March, at a time when most mature females are in breeding condition. It takes little time for nearby males to come courting. During their breeding period, females, for the most part, remain within their territory, whereas males explore within and outside of their territories in search of a receptive female.

Male suitors congregate on the site of a female in estrus and work out the hierarchy within the group. The top chipmunk wins the opportunity to breed with the female. During these dominance battles, the males vocalize, wave their upright tails from side to side, chase each other and fight. The dominant male then breeds with the female. She proceeds to mate anywhere from 10 to 30 times within about a six to seven-hour receptive period, not necessarily with the same male. All of this activity takes place within a week of when chipmunks come above ground, so keep your eyes peeled for those waving tails.

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Rodents Recycling

3-13-15  gray squirrel 001Bones, antlers, skulls, turtle shells – all are recycled relatively quickly by rodents seeking a source of minerals, particularly calcium and phosphorus. All rodents possess four incisors, two in the front of the upper jaw and two opposite these, on the bottom jaw. These incisors, unlike other teeth, never stop growing. By gnawing on hard objects such as bones, rodents keep their incisors paired down. If an incisor is broken or lost, the opposing incisor will continue growing in a circle, having nothing to grind against, causing the rodent to die of starvation or from having its brain pierced (through the roof of the rodent’s mouth) by the ever-growing incisor. In this photograph, a gray squirrel is obtaining minerals and sharpening its incisors on a moose skull that a human wedged into the crotch of a tree.

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Porcupine Cecum

3-6-15 porcupine2 IMG_5163Your guesses were outstanding – especially “Pinocchio scat” and “petrified baby hippopotamus”– and a couple of readers even nailed it: part of the intestines of a porcupine. (Many of you suggested it might be a black bear’s fecal plug – not a bad guess – though any bear that had to pass something this large when it woke up might decide to hibernate year round.)

Mystery Photo Explanation: A fisher killed and ate a porcupine, choosing not to eat (and leaving behind) a portion of the porcupine’s digestive tract called a cecum – a sac located between the large and small intestine where the cellulose in leaves and bark that a porcupine eats are broken down.

During the warmer seasons of the year, porcupines feed on sugar maple buds, leaves of basswood, aspen and beech saplings, grasses and other herbaceous plants, apples, acorns and beech nuts. In winter, their diet consists mostly of leaves (mainly eastern hemlock in the Northeast), which contain low levels of nutrients and high levels of dietary fiber. Certain mammals and birds possess specific bacteria that secrete enzymes capable of digesting the cellulose in fiber (beavers, hares, rabbits and ruffed grouse come to mind) through the process of fermentation. Because these enzymes work slowly, the digestive tract of a porcupine is very long (26% of a porcupine’s total weight) and the fiber passes through it slowly.

A majority of the bacterial activity in a porcupine’s digestive system takes place in the cecum, which is about the same size as a porcupine’s stomach. Here fermentation turns finely ground woody material into molecules small enough to be absorbed by the porcupine’s body. (A process referred to as “hind gut fermentation.”) Research shows that 16% of a porcupine’s energy requirements are supplied by the porcupine’s cecal fermentation.

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