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Happy as Bugs in Freezing Water

Happy as Bugs in Freezing Water

By Winter Ecology at St. Lawrence University
April 14, 2014

This year Nature Up North is featuring a Winter Ecology Series, in which St. Lawrence University students in Dr. Karl McKnight's Winter Ecology course share their observations from a weekly field trip to Glenmeal State Forest in Pierrepont.  As winter turns to spring, we hope you enjoy their accounts from days spent in the woods observing the reawakening of North Country species.  

By Sam Haab

4/3/14

Finding macroinvertebrates (insects, crustaceans, arachnids, molluscs) in various aquatic environments in lab this week was really fun. The weather was beautiful, and I know a lot of people continue to complain about how cold it is in April, but I much prefer the cold to the heat. The fact that macroinvertebrates are able to survive throughout the winter is kind of mindboggling to me. I mean, as humans we can hardly stand being outside for more than a few minutes at the height of winter’s cold, and yet these insects are able to survive throughout the entire winter not only in the cold, but in freezing water! It’s amazing! I definitely think that the coolest of the macroinvertebrates we found were the case-making caddis fly larvae. It is really extraordinary that they are able to shelter themselves in rock structures throughout the winter. Looking at the organisms back in the lab, it was also really neat to get to see the caddis fly larvae breaking out of their structures and beginning to move around.

I think that one of the reasons humans cannot tolerate the winter as well as other animals, like these macroinvertebrates, is the fact that we refuse to cease our normal functions and we refuse to slow down the pace of our schedules and hectic lives. These bugs, on the other hand, encase themselves in rocks and stay like that throughout the winter. I’m not suggesting that humans should try this, but I think if we were to just slow down and spend some extra time relaxing under our warm covers in bed, or sipping tea by the fireside instead of continuing to rush around at a break-neck pace, then we might find ourselves enjoying the winter more than we currently do.


 

Collecting bugs in the stream


The idea of hibernating throughout the winter—staying warm and snug sleeping in bed for example— is extremely appealing to me. Being sleep-deprived week after week has really taken its toll on me, and I personally can’t wait for the semester to end so I can finally catch up on some sleep. In this sense, I kind of envy the macroinvertebrates and the other animals throughout winter that live solely by necessity. However, I would not necessarily want to sleep throughout the entire winter, because I do enjoy winter activities like skiing and snowman making and snowshoeing. I like seeing the world made fresh and clean by a new layer of soft white snow. I love the sound of fluffy snowflakes falling softly on the forest floor. I love winter, and I think despite how horrible and cold a lot of people seem to think it is, I would not want to spend it clinging to a rock or buried in river debris.


Examining samples in the lab


That being said, humans are obviously very different from macroinvertebrates and I think that this difference keeps a lot of people from truly appreciating the unique and varied survival strategies of such organisms. As a species, we tend to identify only with other species that resemble us in some way or that have a direct effect on our lives. I think very few people actually care about these macroinvertebrates. In this sense, we should encourage contact with these creatures to reduce our ignorance of them. If elementary schools spent an early spring afternoon in a stream collecting macroinvertebrates, then I think kids would grow up appreciating the diversity of the spectrum of life around us.           

By Winter Ecology at St. Lawrence University
Canton, New York

Each week, the Winter Ecology course at St. Lawrence University, led by Dr. Karl McKnight, ventures into Glenmeal State Forest in Pierrepont to observe the fascinating ways North Country plants and animals adapt to winter conditions. These are their notes from the field.