Winter life for Tahoe animals: It’s a challenge.

December 27, 2013 | Tim Hauserman

Do you ever wonder what animals do to get through our cold and snowy Tahoe winters? Will Richardson from the Tahoe Institute of Natural Sciences wondered too, and fortunately for us he recently presented an interesting summary of their survival techniques at the Tahoe Educational Research Center on the campus of Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village.

While we all love Tahoe’s incredible winter beauty, and of course can’t wait to get out there and slide around on the snow (hopefully on skis, instead of in cars), it’s a tough time of year for animals. The days are short, the temperatures are frigid, the food supply is mostly buried in the snow, and after all that, it’s just tough getting from place to place when you have to tromp through deep snow. Richardson says that animals have come up with three strategies to cope with Sierra winters:

Get out of town.
Shut it down.
Hunker down.

Getting out of town, also known as migrating, is actually a dangerous journey for animals and  requires a great deal of energy. While it might be an option for birds, which can fly long distances, and larger animals like deer, who can high-tail it to lower elevations, migration is not an option for most smaller animals. One interesting exception is the jackrabbit, which actually migrates to a higher elevation for the winter. They go to the very highest exposed ridge tops where the raucous storm winds blow all the snow away, providing rocky ground and a few nibbles of food.

Shutting it down, also known as hibernating, means dropping your body temperature, slowing your metabolism rate, and going into a deep level of sleep. Female bears sleep deeper than male bears because they actually birth their cubs while sleeping. Some animals make short migrations to hibernate together and stay warmer, snakes are a classic example. Perhaps the most interesting hibernators are certain types of frogs, which freeze solid, even their hearts stop beating, and then miraculously come back to life when it warms. Squirrels cover the gamut. The tree squirrels are able to hole up in trees and stay active for the winter. While ground squirrels, dig deep into the ground and hibernate for a long period of time under the snow. Chipmunks are somewhere in-between. First, they hoard a huge amount of food. Then they sleep for awhile, get up and eat, and then go down for another nap. Repeating the cycle several times each winter.

Finally, some animals just hunker down and figure out a way to get through it. Some change their fur to white, so either the predator or prey cannot see them in the snow. Voles survive in the narrow, insulated area between the bottom of the snowpack and the ground (we see their tunnels on our springtime hikes). Some insects migrate, but others find refuge from the cold by burrowing into the trees. Woodpeckers and other birds then depend on those tree dwelling tasty morsels to make it through the winter.

And what do humans do? Some migrate away from the cold, while others find the mountains as a good place to be in the winter. While most of them lack fur, humans build warm homes and wear clothes to protect themselves from the elements. And while some humans remain very active in the winter, they often hunker down during the worst periods staying close to the warmth of a fire, while eating lots of Fish Tacos to build up the necessary energy for their next adventure into the elements.

More info on animal survival: Tahoe Institute for Natural Sciences,