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NGSS: Core Idea: LS4.C, ESS2.D

CCSS: Reading Informational Text: 6

TEKS: Science: 3.10A, 4.10A, 5.10A, 6.12E; ELA: 3.7B, 3.7F, 4.7B, 4.7F, 5.7B, 6.6E, 6.6F

Wild Winter Snoozers

Many animals spend the winter in a sleep-like state. These five may surprise you!

Shallotte River Swamp Park

Brrrr! It’s getting chilly in the northern part of our planet. When it’s cold out, people wear sweaters and scarves to stay warm. But what do animals do? 

Some animals hibernate. Their bodies slow down to save energy. This adaptation helps them survive the harshest months of the year. “It’s a way to avoid periods when there’s very little to eat,” says Mark Brigham, a biologist at the University of Regina in Canada. 

Hundreds of species hibernate—but each does it a little differently. Here are four animals that snooze through the winter in unusual ways. 

Brrr! It’s chilly outside in most of the United States. People bundle up when the weather’s cold. They wear sweaters to stay warm. They wear scarves too. But what do animals do? 

Some animals hibernate. Their bodies slow down to save energy. This is an adaptation. It helps animals survive the coldest time of the year. “It’s a way to avoid periods when there’s very little to eat,” says Mark Brigham. He’s a biologist at the University of Regina in Canada. 

Hundreds of species hibernate. But each does it a little differently. Here are four animals that snooze through the winter. They do it in unusual ways. 

Scott Leslie/Minden Pictures

To breathe in frozen swamps, alligators stick their noses through the ice.

Ice-Defying Alligators

Last January, George Howard was walking through the Shallotte River Swamp Park in North Carolina, where he works as a manager, when he noticed something strange. The swamp had frozen over, and poking through the ice were the snouts of 18 American alligators! 

Alligators live in the southeastern United States, where it’s usually warm year-round. But if the weather cools to below 20°C (70°F), their bodies start to slow down. The reptiles stop eating and don’t move around much. That’s because alligators are cold-blooded. Their body temperature changes depending on the surrounding environment.

If the gators sense that the swamp is near freezing, they stick their noses up through the water’s surface so they can breathe. The sight is unusual because of the typically warm climate where alligators live. “If it doesn’t get cold, then it doesn’t happen,” says Howard.

George Howard was walking through the park last January. He is a manager at the Shallotte River Swamp Park in North Carolina. Howard noticed the swamp had frozen over. He saw something poking through the ice. They were American alligator snouts. There were 18 of them! 

Alligators live in the southeastern U.S. It’s usually warm there all year. But sometimes the weather cools below 20°C (70°F). At that temperature, the alligators’ bodies start to slow down. The reptiles stop eating. They don’t move much. That’s because alligators are cold-blooded. That means their body temperature changes based on the environment around them.  

Gators can sense when the swamp is near freezing. They stick their noses up through the water’s surface. That allows them to breathe. The sight is unusual. That’s because it’s typically warm where alligators live. “If it doesn’t get cold, then it doesn’t happen,” says Howard.

Garry Gay/Alamy Stock Photo

Ladybugs hibernate in large groups. Their coloring warns predators that the beetles taste bad. 

Snuggling Ladybugs

This colorful group of ladybugs is like a giant slumber party! To survive winters, thousands of the tiny beetles cluster together. 

Ladybugs usually live alone. But when temperatures drop, the insects release chemicals into the air. The substances signal other ladybugs to huddle together, says Laura Lavine. She’s a scientist at Washington State University who studies insects. The ladybugs form a pile and snooze until spring. Scientists aren’t sure why they snuggle together. One theory is that being in a large group helps protect individual beetles from being eaten by predators like birds. 

Ladybugs find their way inside cracks, under tree bark, and even inside homes. “They squeeze into the craziest places,” Lavine says.

Look at this colorful group of ladybugs. It’s like a giant slumber party! They’re trying to survive the winter. To do that, thousands of the tiny beetles cluster together. 

Ladybugs usually live alone. But when temperatures drop, the insects give off chemicals into the air. The substances send signals to other ladybugs. They tell the ladybugs to huddle together, says Laura Lavine. She’s a scientist who studies insects. She works at Washington State University. 

The ladybugs form a pile and snooze. They snuggle together until spring. Scientists aren’t sure why. One idea is that being in a large group helps the beetles. Predators like birds eat the bugs. Staying together might protect some from becoming a meal. 

Ladybugs find their way inside cracks. They sneak under tree bark. They even creep inside homes. “They squeeze into the craziest places,” Lavine says.

Staffan Widstrand/NPL/Minden Pictures

During hibernation, the arctic ground squirrel’s body temperature can drop below freezing.

Supercool Squirrels

Many hibernating animals lower their body temperature to save energy. But no mammal’s body cools as much as the arctic ground squirrel’s. Its body can reach -2.9°C (27°F). At that temperature, any other mammal would die, says Cory Williams, a biologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

In the summer, the squirrels stuff themselves with leaves and berries, almost doubling their body weight. During hibernation, the animals don’t eat or drink. Instead, they rely on the extra fat they’ve stored to get the energy they need to survive. 

Arctic ground squirrels live in the northern-most parts of the U.S., Canada, and Siberia. They hibernate for up to nine months in their underground burrows! Can you imagine spending that long in bed?

Many hibernating animals lower their body temperature. But no mammal’s body cools as much as the arctic ground squirrel’s. Its body can reach -2.9°C (27°F). Any other mammal would die at that temperature, says Cory Williams. He’s a biologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The squirrels stuff themselves in the summer. They eat leaves and berries. They almost double their body weight. The animals don’t eat or drink when they hibernate. They rely on the extra fat they’ve stored. That fat gives them energy. They need energy to survive. 

Arctic ground squirrels live in the northern part of the world. That includes parts of the U.S., Canada, and Siberia. They sleep in holes underground. They hibernate for up to nine months! Can you imagine spending that long in bed?

All Canada Photos/Alamy Stock Photo

Can you spot this common poorwill on the ground? It’s the only bird known to hibernate.

Frozen Birds?

Rick & Nora Bowers /Alamy Stock Photo

Many birds migrate to warmer places during winter. There’s only one bird in the world that’s known to hibernate: the common poorwilll, which lives in western North America.

In the fall, the birds prepare for winter the way many animals do: They put on weight. As temperatures drop, the birds sit on the ground, cool their bodies, and slow their body functions. They stay still for up to 10 weeks.

Sitting out in the open could be risky for a bird. But the common poorwill’s coloring serves as camouflage, hiding it from predators like foxes, says Brigham. 

 The birds look frozen, but they are alive. When they are ready to become active, the birds take 20 minutes to warm up and fly away. 

Many birds migrate. They fly to warmer places during the winter. But the common poorwill doesn’t do that. It’s the only bird known to hibernate. It lives in western North America.

In the fall, temperatures drop. The birds put on weight. Many other animals do that too. Gaining weight helps the birds get ready for winter. Then they sit on the ground. Their bodies cool and slow. The birds stay still for up to 10 weeks.

The birds sit out in the open. That can be risky. But the common poorwill’s coloring acts as camouflage. It hides the bird from predators like foxes, says Brigham. 

The birds look frozen. But they’re alive. They become active again after winter. It can take 20 minutes for them to warm up. Then they fly away. 

Christina Prinn/iStock/Getty Images

Painted turtles like this one have an odd adaptation to allow them breathe when they hibernate underwater.

Butt-Breathing Turtles

You may have noticed painted turtles basking in the sun on rocks or logs in your local pond. The reptiles live in water, but they breathe air through their lungs like humans do. So what happens if a layer of ice traps the turtles underwater?

During the winter, painted turtles hunker down at the bottom of the pond and start breathing through their butts! The thin skin in that area of their body can absorb oxygen that’s in the water. The turtles can hibernate like this for up to 100 days, says Jacqueline Litzgus, a biologist at Laurentian University in Canada. They don’t freeze because the water is slightly warmer at the bottom of the pond.

Painted turtle babies are different. If it’s cold when they hatch, they hibernate in nests on land. The babies’ body temperature can drop as low as -15°C (5°F)!

You may have noticed painted turtles basking in the sun on rocks or logs in your local pond. The reptiles live in water, but they breathe air through their lungs like humans do. So what happens if a layer of ice traps the turtles underwater?

During the winter, painted turtles hunker down at the bottom of the pond and start breathing through their butts! The thin skin in that area of their body can absorb oxygen that’s in the water. The turtles can hibernate like this for up to 100 days, says Jacqueline Litzgus, a biologist at Laurentian University in Canada. They don’t freeze because the water is slightly warmer at the bottom of the pond.

Painted turtle babies are different. If it’s cold when they hatch, they hibernate in nests on land. The babies’ body temperature can drop as low as -15°C (5°F)!

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