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Featured Process: Groundhog Day (and Other Hibernators)
February 2nd is Groundhog Day, with key prognosticators in both the US (Punxsutawney Phil) and Canada (Nova Scotia’s Schubenacadie Sam, Alberta’s Balzac Billy and Ontario’s Wiarton Willie). Willie even has his own statue. As you know, if they see their shadows, it’s six more weeks of winter. If not, bring out the gardening tools. People in Ontario’s Bruce Penninsula claim 90% accuracy for Willie (it must be sunny a lot up there). Would a Groundhog see its shadow on Groundhog Day at your school? Step outside on February 2nd and find out.
Why February 2? Well, it’s the exact middle of winter (half-way between the winter solstice and spring equinox), a time when folks traditionally checked to see if they had half of their hay, firewood and root vegetables left. In Britain, it marks the beginning of spring planting. It is also Candlemas on the Christian calendar, a day long associated with forecasting spring:
“If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight.
If Candlemas Day be cloud and rain,
Then winter will not come again.”
Why a Groundhog? German farmers used to observe European Badgers to get a sense of spring activity (some thought they could foretell spring), and when they immigrated to the U.S. and Canada and found few badgers, they transferred the tradition to the very common Groundhogs, which begin to emerge in some parts of North America around the second week of February.
See what Willie, Sam, Billy or Phil predict this year, as well as your own prediction, and then follow the weather and decide if the prediction(s) come true or not.
A good children’s story from the Groundhog’s perspective can be found here.
The Groundhog, also known as a Woodchuck or Marmot, is the largest member of the rodent family and a true hibernator. It puts on a thick layer of fat in the fall, and then retires below the frost line (sometimes as much as 5 m under the surface) in its burrow, where it enters a profound sleep. Its heart rate will drop from 80 beats/minute to 4 or 5, respiration to once a minute, and its temperature may drop as low as 30C. Groundhogs will carry some of their fat into spring because when they emerge fresh greens may be weeks away.
In true mammalian hibernation, body temperature drops to near the surrounding temperatures (usually slightly above freezing), and heart, respiration and metabolic rates drop significantly. Energy use is 60-98% lower than normal. Periods of deep hibernation last from one to several weeks, with hours of arousal in-between, and arousal may take several days. Towards spring, arousal periods lengthen until hibernation is broken.
Other mammals that truly hibernate include the Meadow Jumping Mouse, Woodland Jumping Mouse, Franklin’s Ground Squirrel and the following bats : Little Brown, Big Brown, Northern Long-eared, Eastern Small-footed, and Tri-Coloured Bat. Bats cluster in hibernacula, often caves, and small increases in temperature caused by even careful visitation may rouse the bats too often, leading to starvation and death. Please avoid known hibernation caves in winter!
INVASIVE ALERT – Emerald Ash Borer
Many insects also use hibernation-like state called diapause to survive winter including the invasive Emerald Ash Borer which is destroying Canadian trees like Black Ash. This beetle probably arrived here in wooden shipping crates from Asian countries like China and was first detected in Ontario in 2002. It has now spread through southern Ontario into Quebec and threatens forested areas in other provinces. Adult beetles lay eggs that hatch into larvae which burrow through the ash tree bark creating “S” shaped galleries that harm the tree’s ability to transport food and water. The larvae overwinter under the tree bark by hibernating and producing an antifreeze that protects them from temperatures as low as -30°C! This small beetle could have devastating impacts on the forest industry. Ash wood is an important resource used to manufacture items like tool handles and baseball bats. In Canada many of our parks and green spaces have numerous ash trees. The loss of these trees removes valuable wildlife habitat and takes away our shady spaces on a hot summer day! There are now special regulations that restrict the movement of ash wood out of the infected regions of southern Ontario and Quebec but you can also help control this pest. When spring arrives spend some time outside learning to recognize different species of ash trees and report any signs of Emerald Ash Borer to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency at 1-800-442-2342. Meanwhile, if the freezing cold has you feeling like you should hibernate have some fun with these beetle puzzles!