Studying animals in winter gives us the chance to discuss animal adaptations in a context that makes sense even to quite young students. We can see the amazing variety of nature and bring earth science and life science together with geography in some interesting ways.
Begin by brainstorming the differences between winter and summer from the point of view of living things. Use a board, pocket chart, chart paper, or mind mapping software to record the aspects students mention. Some possibilities:
- Plant food is less plentiful.
- It can get too cold for comfort.
- Prey animals might stand out against the snow and be easier for predators to spot.
Have students list how human beings cope with these problems. For example, since fresh plant food is less plentiful, we might eat frozen vegetables or store grains in the form of flour or meal. If it’s too cold, we might wear warm clothing, build well insulated homes, and heat our homes with fuel. If predatory animals were a problem, we might stay indoors.
Lead students to notice that a lot of the human solutions to problems created by winter depend on technology and culture. How do other animals cope with cold weather?
Here are some primary solutions animals use:
- Hibernation Bats hibernate, suspending their normal life so that they don’t need any food. Their body temperatures drop, their heartbeats slow down, and they breathe much less frequently. They sleep all winter and sort of live in slow motion so that they need very little energy to survive. Young children will enjoy making a Hibernation Station (the lesson plan linked here confuses hibernation and dormancy — make sure your students understand the difference!) to make this idea more concrete. Read Hibernation Station or Denise Fleming’s Time to Sleep.
- Dormancy Animals that become dormant, like bears, become sleepy and move very little. They store energy in the form of fat when food is available and live off of the stored energy through the winter when food is in short supply. Polar bears may remain dormant for most of the year, while bears in warmer climates sleep for a month or two. They may wake up sometimes, but they conserve energy by sleeping most of the time and moving very little.
- Camouflage Some animals, such as the Snowshoe Hare, change from a dark coat in summer to a white coat in winter. The dark coat camouflages the hare in field and forest in the summer, while the white coat makes it hard to see the bare in snowy weather. How and Why Animals Prepare for Winter is a great little book with pictures of this.
- Insulation Animals that live in cold climates use fat and fur to insulate their bodies and avoid heat loss. The Magic School Bus In The Arctic: A Book About Heat is a great book to read to explore this concept further. Scholastic has a science demonstration with reproducibles to go with this book. Animals that are always in the cold, such as polar bears, have special adaptations for insulation. Polar bears have black skin, which heats up better than pale skin, and their fur is made up of hollow hairs that trap warm air. They also keep a layer of fat on their bodies as insulation. Animals living in temperate climates grow thicker fur for winter and shed it when the weather gets warmer.
- Burrowing Warm air also gets trapped underground — even under snow. Many animals go underground in the winter. If they stay active, they store food for the winter in dens or burrows. If they become dormant or hibernate, they don’t eat in the winter. Animals in Winter has good pictures of this process.
- Migration Some animals just leave cold climates in the winter and go to where it’s warmer. Monarch butterflies are a good example of migration. Artsedge has a creative movement lesson that will help elementary students understand this complex idea fully.
- Antifreeze Insects sometimes produce chemicals in their bodies that behave like antifreeze in a car. Enaturalist.org has a clear explanation of the subject, plus a poster you can download. While this is specific to insects, it’s very interesting. I’m Freezing is a related resource at the same site.
Some of these things are, like human adaptations, behaviors: things the animals do. Some are physical adaptions. Some have a little of both; for example, hibernation is something hedgehogs do, but only because they have physical adaptations that allow them to do it. Human beings couldn’t hibernate because we don’t have the physical ability to do so. Humans can migrate to warmer climates, but we use technology and culture to achieve migration, and don’t have the special physical adaptations that migrating birds have.
List any adaptations students know about in the “Know” section of a KWL chart. Brainstorm a list of questions for the “Want to Know” section, and send students to the library and computer lab or classroom library and computer to research the questions. Make sure that each solution is fully understood, perhaps following up with some of the books and experiences given above.
When students have had a chance to discover more about the behaviors of animals in the winter, list the main discoveries in the “Learned” section of the KWL chart.
- Stranger in the Woods is a beautiful book to begin or end the study.
- Animals in Winter is a very accessible early reader.
- The Animals’ Winter Sleep is a sweet book with realistic illustrations.
- How and Why Animals Prepare for Winter has lots of great photos and information, at an amazing price.
- Life in the Cold: An Introduction to Winter Ecology is an authoritative source for older students, or for teacher background.
Some lesson plans for specific animals with interesting winter adaptations:
- Snakes slow down for the winter.
- Squirrels store food for the winter.
- Bears hibernate.
- Groundhogs go underground for the winter — and they get their own holiday.
- Some butterflies migrate.