Polar vortex doesn’t faze mammals, fish

Despite the recent power outages, school closings, fender-benders, frostbite, hypothermia and other concerns brought on by the polar vortex, mammals, fish and insects seem barely fazed by Mother Nature this winter.

Several experts say area wildlife is more resilient than we give it credit for.

“We have a tendency to treat animals all the same and think that domestic animals and wild animals need the same treatment and care and concern. In reality, wildlife are very tough and are built to survive,” said Jamey Emmert, spokeswoman for the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

And regarding the recent onslaught of below-freezing temperatures, Emmert said even though many northeast Ohioans may disagree with her, the weather is “really not that bad,” especially compared to Canada, where it’s not only frigid but also receives lots of snow, she said.

For the most part, wild animals are built to withstand Ohio winters. But lower-than-usual temperatures or a large amount of snow and ice also can be a defining moment.

“Some species are more built for this type of weather than others. When animals perish, other animals will certainly take advantage of the opportunity … that definitely helps to strengthen the food chain as a whole,” Emmert said.

And although some animals do hibernate during the winter, in this area, most animals torpor, or go into a deep sleep for a shorter amount of time, which slows down their metabolism.

“They can wrestle out of it pretty easily. A raccoon will torpor for a few days,” she said, at which point it will emerge and go about foraging for food – this allows them to survive the very rough times.

Other ways animals survive is by seeking shelter in manmade structures such as homes and sheds, not just in winter, but also in warmer weather, she said.

In order to keep your home free of furry explorers, Emmert recommended the typical approaches: Keep pet food and grill areas cleaned up; don’t leave garbage out overnight; and block any open entrances or holes in or around structures.

Ohio’s aquatic inhabitants also look to be faring well despite the frozen lakes and ponds.

Fisheries biologist Curtis Wagner said the coldest water is that at the top – the frozen layer – while the fish swim around the warmer water below. They aren’t exposed to wind chills like mammals – so the wide temperature swings aren’t felt under water as they are on land.

“Fish are in a whole different environment. They’re confined under this 32-degree layer of ice in warmer than 32-degree water,” he said, adding that sometimes the duration of the winter has more of an impact than the severity.

“There is some evidence that longer, colder-duration winters do result in some higher levels of fish kill. It’s not always necessarily a bad thing for the fishery; it’s one of the natural cycles that can occur,” he explained.

Snow cover also plays a role in the fishes’ ability to survive.

“In a winter where you have a lot of ice and a lot of snow cover, you can get a complete depletion of oxygen in the water column,” he said. But even then, the fish will just push into some deeper pockets where there is more oxygen remaining in the water. They might be more lethargic and do less foraging as a result, but won’t necessarily die off.

What’s good about this winter for the fish is that, despite the bitter cold, there hasn’t seen a large amount of snowfall.

“A lot of the ice has been fairly snow-free. There probably is still a fair amount of sunlight penetrating the ice,” which will diminish some of the low oxygen effects, he said.

Unfortunately for those who are squeamish when it comes to bugs, the insect world probably won’t take a big hit from the cold, either.

Dan Herms, professor and chair of the Entomology Department at Ohio State University in Wooster, said it’s been cold – but not that cold.

“It hasn’t really gotten cold enough here that I would expect that it will have a big effect,” he said, which may disappoint those who were hoping for a decrease in the population of the emerald ash borer, the pesky beetle responsible for the deaths of millions of ash trees across the United States.

Herms said there starts to be some “limited mortality” when temperatures get below -10, but it has to be between -20 to -30 to have any bigger impact on the population.

“I don’t anticipate a huge impact, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens,” he said.

As far as other bugs go, Herms said we may have forgotten what it’s like to experience a really cold winter, but the insects haven’t.

“They’re pretty well adapted to survive at colder temperatures,” he said. ”As it gets gradually colder … the insects develop antifreeze compounds in their bodies, so they are pretty resilient when it comes to cold weather.”

Mosquitoes are nestled safely within the soil, buffering them from extreme temperatures, he said.

Some bugs like to invade homes, such as the multi-colored Asian lady beetle, but they don’t try to guess whether the winter is going to be warm or cold, he said – they just like it where it’s nice and toasty.

But some bees might feel the sting of the cold if beekeepers don’t take the necessary steps to insulate their hives.

Honeybees remain active through the winter, generating heat for their hive, but if it gets too cold and they don’t build enough honey reserves, they can succumb to winter’s embrace.

“Beekeepers have been proactive about protecting their bees. Beekeepers will insulate the hives to keep the heat in that the bees generate,” Herms said, but added he does know one beekeeper who already has lost some of her hives. However, not all of her hives were lost and she plans on ordering more bees in the spring.

The animal and insect experts agreed on this: Mother Nature has a way of keeping things going, and spring is just around the corner.