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Nature’s Nappers

If you are not a fan of cold weather, you probably envy the animals that take those long winter naps. Basically, it seems like snuggling down under the cozy covers until spring arrives, doesn’t it?

While that is certainly a comforting thought, there is more to hibernation than you might think.

Hibernation is best described as a way that many animals deal with the harshness of winter weather and a shortage of food. Some animals, like chipmunks, will stay busy during late summer storing food supplies in their comfy burrows where they will nap, then eat, off and on, until spring.

Other animals will begin a feeding frenzy in late summer. These hungry critters, such as the woodchuck, will constantly eat to build up fat reserves in their bodies. As a result, they end up wearing their food supply into the winter season.

When cold weather sets in and food becomes scarce, many animals enter a period of inactivity called torpor. This is a state of sluggishness that conserves an animal’s energy by lowering its heart and respiratory rate.

Certain reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects and mammals will remain in this coma-like condition during the coldest part of the season.

The animals that use this survival strategy sleep lightly for short periods, are easily awakened and resume their normal activities during moderate winter weather.

No doubt you have seen some of these power-nappers away from their snug hideouts on warmer winter days. You may be surprised to learn that the legendary hibernating bear of story book and folk-lore fame, is more of a napper than an all-winter-deep-sleeper!

The true hibernator, however, is an animal that goes into a deep torpor and spends most of the winter in a condition close to death. The body temperature can drop down close to 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit); respiration is reduced to only a few breaths each minute and the slow heartbeat is barely detectable. Even though the animal appears to be dead, it will slowly awaken when exposed to moderate warmth.

Ground squirrels and many bat species are deep sleepers. But the most famous, true hibernator of all is the familiar groundhog (same as woodchuck). Every year, on Feb. 2, one particularly celebrated groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil, is aroused from his sleep and thrust into the limelight. In front of TV cameras and surrounded by an adoring crowd, he enjoys 15 minutes of fame by making a weather prediction based solely on his shadow.

If it’s sunny and he sees his shadow, then 6 more weeks of wintry weather are expected. But if his shadow is not evident, then an early spring is anticipated.

Once the forecast is known, most people forget about the groundhog … except gardeners who happen to have a hungry, eat-everything-in-site groundhog for a neighbor. In a short period of time, winter’s rock star rodent can become summer’s number one nuisance! But that’s another story …

Most of nature’s nappers will go about their slumber and awakening without any meteorological fanfare or hoopla. They simply hunker down in places where they are safely tucked away and can rest without interruption.

If you have ever wondered about which animals are snoozing away, out of sight, look over the Word Search puzzle. There are 14 familiar nappers hidden there.

Most likely you have unknowingly passed close by the tunnels, burrows, caves, tree cavities, pond mud and leaf litter of their quiet, winter world.

Snuggle down in your own little cozy spot and enjoy the hunt!

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