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JANUARY 2015


Backyard Naturalist by Melanie Snyder


It’s January, so the weather outside is probably cold right now. With temperatures dipped below freezing, you might see icicles hanging from the roof, or face the unpleasant prospect of shoveling any snow that might be on the ground. As you are snug and warm in your house, do you look out at your backyard and wonder how the outdoor creatures are surviving the cold months? Most of us are at least somewhat familiar with the winter habits


of terrestrial


animals that pass through our yards on a regular basis. Some of the bird species fl y to warmer climes for the season, while others stay and hover near the bird feeders. Mammals, such as chipmunks and bats, hibernate the winter away, while others, like deer, can still be seen roaming around. However, if you have a natural pond in your backyard, or are thinking of putting in a pond that will become home to some aquatic, cold-blooded species such as turtles, frogs, and fi sh, you may be interested to know


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Surviving Winter in a Backyard Pond


how they are able to survive freezing temperatures under the surface of the water. There are thirteen species of turtles in West Virginia. Only one, the box turtle, spends the winter buried in soil. The rest of our native turtles, such as the spotted turtle, will survive the winter aquatically.


If


overwintering in a backyard pond, a turtle will bury itself under the mud at the bottom. A turtle’s heartbeat


will


then slow to as little as one heartbeat per ten minutes. The truly amazing thing is, as oxygen levels are extremely low under the muddy pond bottom, turtles have evolved to stop breathing completely for up to four or fi ve months! Most of their organs shut down, and they use only enough oxygen to convert sugars


(glucose)


into energy to survive. Turtles stop eating, which requires too much energy. The high concentrations of glucose in turtles’ vital organs is akin to antifreeze (yes, like that stuff you spray on car windshields to get rid of ice!), which prevents


the turtle from freezing


to death. The pond can completely freeze over and a healthy turtle will usually survive to “wake up” in the spring.


Frogs that hibernate in aquatic environments have a slightly


different survival


strategy. If frogs are using your pond to over-winter, they do not bury themselves as turtles do. The leopard frog or the American bullfrog, for example, will instead lie on top of the mud at the bottom of the pond, or only partially bury itself. Like the turtle, a frog will stop breathing, slow its heartbeat drastically, stop eating, and produce antifreeze from the glucose in its vital organs. But frogs need much more oxygenation from their aquatic environment to survive winter. Because frogs absorb oxygen through their skin, they will also sometimes slowly move or swim around as a way to stir up and aerate the water—a task turtles need not perform. Fish, whether those beautiful


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Tilhance Creek, a wood turtle haven, a few years ago after a long cold spell, photo by Wil Hershberger.


koi, a variety of carp selected for ornamental ponds, or native species in natural ponds, can also survive the winter in freezing aquatic environments. There is just a little more work involved for them and pond owners. Fish will become slow, or torpid, as do all cold-blooded creatures, and will stop eating, but will move their fi ns to “tread water” along the bottom of the pond, or even swim around a little. Fish require higher levels of oxygenation than turtles or frogs, so it is important that the pond has adequate aeration to keep the water oxygenated. Pond owners may fi nd that,


with those gorgeous koi at least, they will need to poke a hole in the surface of the ice over the pond on a regular basis so that oxygen may fl ow more freely. Also, pond owners wanting healthy fi sh come spring should clean out excessive organic material, such as


leaves, since the breakdown, or decaying, of organic matter lowers oxygen levels. So if you have a natural


pond, know that your friendly native turtles, frogs, and fi sh are well-equipped to handle those freezing cold temperatures. And, if you are thinking of putting in a pond to enhance the ecosystem of your backyard, you can rest easy that any visitors of the cold- blooded variety will survive the winter and be ready for spring! Melanie Snyder, a recent Shepherd University graduate and a VISTA Volunteer, is helping Potomac Valley Audubon Society build its capacity to serve more WV youth. The PVAS Backyard Naturalist program encourages community members to connect with the wildlife in their own backyards. To learn how to provide quality backyard habitat go to www.potomacaudubon.org/ bynhabitats.”


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