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Wintering, then waking up

Castor Canadensis (beaver)
Credit: Biodôme de Montréal
Castor Canadensis  (beaver)
Wintering, then waking up

Every spring, a certain number of animals emerge from a torpor in which they’ve been engulfed all winter.

For some, like the groundhog, the chipmunk or certain turtles, we talk about a literal reawakening: these animals have spent the winter hibernating, fast asleep except on rare occasions.

Raccoons, skunks and bears, meanwhile, were doing more like snoozing, taking advantage of certain opportunities to feed and move around: they were wintering.

So in spring, all these creatures are active again – and they’re famished! After all, they’ve spent the winter living on just the energy contained in their stored fat. On top of which, they’ve lost a lot of weight, in the case of the raccoon as much as half.

Stimulated by warmth and the abundance of light, the metabolism of these animals speeds up rapidly when spring arrives.

The bodies warm up in a few hours to return to their “normal” temperatures. The blood system reactivates after running on idle for a number of weeks. Breathing picks up again, as does heartbeat. The chipmunk’s heart, for example, moves from three to four beats per minute to reach a normal rate of 350 beats per minute!

The special case of the Biodôme

The Biodôme animals have little respect for winter, and that’s true even if the lighting and temperature in the ecosystems are adjusted on the basis of the seasons. The Laurentian maple forest will drop from a maximum of 23 degrees Celsius in the summer to a minimum of 4 degrees Celsius in the winter, during the night. That’s cold, but that does not stop the beaver from staying active all winter long.

Only the painted turtles will disappear from the landscape for a period of time. These have to hibernate if they want to remain in good health. Since it’s never cold enough at the Biodôme, we have them spend the months of January and February in a tub of water kept in a refrigerator. Then once spring arrives, they’re put back in their habitat.

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