DO ANIMALS TAKE HOLIDAYS?

by Whit Gibbons

December 28, 2014

Q: You once wrote a column in which you said that every human profession (except being a lawyer) and everything humans do (except praying) has an analogue in the animal kingdom. Considering humans, at least Americans, take a lot of holidays and vacations, do animals do something comparable?

A: I may have overstated the case a bit with those analogies, but it is nonetheless true that we mimic animals in many ways. And I doubt if anyone would argue about the two exceptions I noted. As far as taking time off from work, in the temperate zones most animals, as well as plants, might be considered to spend the majority of their time on holiday.

All you have to do is look at a hardwood forest during winter to see that most trees have dropped their leaves and are just waiting for the days to lengthen and warm up before they start working at their day job of producing chlorophyll and collecting sunlight. Some of my botanist colleagues might challenge the notion that deciduous plants are actually taking a long winter holiday but I think it’s not bad as a loose analogy. Certainly the red oak in my backyard does nothing but stand there all winter. Looks like a vacation to me.

When chilly autumn winds announce that winter is not far behind, birds are even more like people: Some actually head south to warmer climes. It is safe to say that more of our feathered friends travel from up north to Florida each year than do human snowbirds. Tiny ruby-throated hummingbirds take it a step farther by deciding Mexico is a better vacation spot, the same as many U.S. and Canadian citizens. And, like people, many of them keep on going farther south, electing to spend their winter vacation in the Caribbean. The American golden plover, a type of wading bird, takes winter holiday trips to the extreme by spending summers as far north as the Arctic before traveling to the southern parts of South America during our winter.

Meanwhile, for most of the stay-at-home temperate zone animals, which would include the insects, their holiday plan is simply to become dormant. Many lay eggs in the fall that overwinter in underground burrows, in holes left by decayed roots or beneath leaf litter, rocks or logs. I lifted a hay bale recently to find a fat beetle larva that will probably stay inactive until it emerges in the spring. Peeling off a piece of dead bark from a fallen pine tree will often reveal a host of inactive native wood roaches that are dormant during cold periods, again loosely analogous to a winter vacation.

Winter dormancy is rampant among reptiles, although the approaches taken vary from group to group. Some aquatic turtles, especially the common sliders, can remain under the banks of lakes or rivers for days at a time during extreme cold spells. But on a sunny day when the air temperature has warmed a bit, seeing a slider turtle basking on a log in winter is not unusual. In either case, turtles don’t do much during winter in most of North America. Most snakes and lizards likewise remain inactive during cold spells, and almost anywhere north of Florida simply take the winter off. It’s not the kind of vacation most people are looking for, as a reptile’s metabolism decreases under cold conditions so that they can go long periods without eating or drinking. Nonetheless, they take it easy and do not work for a good part of the year.

In contrast to deciduous trees and shrubs, insects, and reptiles, most warm-blooded mammals like ourselves remain active all winter in a constant search for food. A few, however, like black bears, have managed to put the winter holiday season into proper perspective. They find a cozy hollow tree or cave in which to spend the long, cold nights. Sounds to me like a great winter vacation.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)

 

 
SREL HomeUGA Home SREL Home UGA Home