MARTHA SEZ: ‘Torpor is apparently a sort of hibernation-lite’

St. Agnes’ Eve-Ah, bitter chill it was!

The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;

The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,

And silent was the flock in woolly fold …

“The Eve of St. Agnes” by John Keats

January is the coldest month in the Adirondacks. Nature lies still beneath its mantle of ice and snow. Where are the bears? Do they hibernate? (Trick question.) Or do black bears instead enter a slumbrous state known as torpor, during which–as in hibernation– their breathing and heart and metabolic rates slow down, sometimes for as long as 100 days?

Who cares, is my answer. Call it what you will, at least they are not raiding the trash and strewing it in an unseemly manner all over the neighborhood.

I find it difficult to see the difference between hibernation and torpor, but it is considered more correct when in the company of wildlife biologists to say that bears, raccoons and skunks survive the winter by undergoing torpor, while rodents, some bats, amphibians, turtles, bees and snakes hibernate. Beavers, true to their reputation, do neither; they remain busy even while lying low in their lodges.

Torpor is apparently a sort of hibernation-lite that allows an animal to awaken quickly when in danger. On the other hand, I read that when a bear is roused from torpor its muscles contract, causing it to shake and shiver violently, which I figure would slow it down some.

On mild winter days chipmunks and squirrels emerge from hibernation and scamper about in search of food.

Some frogs actually freeze solid. Their hearts stop beating and they appear dead. In the spring the frogs thaw out again and resume their normal activities of hopping around and peeping. How can this be?

Freezing is deadly to many organisms because ice crystals form inside the body, piercing and destroying cells and organs. Some frogs maintain a high blood level of glucose, which functions as antifreeze. (I couldn’t find any evidence that eating a lot of sugar in winter protects humans from freezing to death, unfortunately.) Saltwater fish tend to travel to warmer climates in winter, while freshwater fish slow down and congregate near the bottom of deep lakes and ponds. People who ice-fish for walleye, northern pike, yellow perch and rainbow trout require patience and warm clothing as they wait for the lethargic fish to bite.

Some insects, including monarch butterflies, fly south for the winter along with the geese and the hummingbirds, some, like crickets, die, and others, like ladybugs, hibernate.

Cicadas are some of the strangest insects of all. While they don’t truly hibernate, some species of so-called perennial cicadas go to extremes, living underground for up to 17 years and then emerging en masse in the spring for the final 4 or 5 weeks of their lives.

Perennial cicadas have very narrow ranges. The Onondaga cicada is currently found only on the Onondaga Nation in upstate New York.

I read that it is “considered a delicacy” in the Onondaga Nation but, contrary to the cliche, does not “taste like chicken” but like a combination of popcorn and potato chips.

A male cicada can make 100 decibels of noise as he sings in the treetops to attract females. His shrill song is as loud as a rock concert, loud enough to damage human ear drums. His abdomen is hollow, like a violin, which amplifies his mating call.

Perennial Cicada Brood 10 will emerge in the spring of 2021 in Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

From black bears to tiny water bears, also known as moss piglets or, more formally, as tardigrades, is a huge leap. Tardigrades can’t be seen with the naked eye, but through a microscope they look kind of cute, like little puffy four-legged Pokemon creatures.

While a tardigrade can’t exactly be said to hibernate, under adverse conditions it forms a cystlike desiccated tun that can endure for many years.

Tardigrades have survived all five mass extinctions; they are able to survive extremes of heat, cold, dehydration, pressure and radiation that would be fatal to other animals. Scientists blasted thousands into space attached to a satellite, and many survived. They are found all over the earth, but prefer moist conditions like woodland moss and the soggy leaves in your eaves trough.

Just like the wildflowers, they’re all waiting for spring.

Have a good week.


(Martha Allen lives in Keene Valley. She has been writing for the Lake Placid News for more than 20 years.)