While it’s cold outside, it doesn’t mean everything has stopped. In fact, in ecological terms, winter is a busy time of year! The activities that happen over the winter can set the tone for the rest of the annual cycle.
What is winter ecology?
Winter ecology is a broad term to cover what happens to plants, animals, and the rest of our habitats over the colder months. From the largest beasts to the smallest microbes and microorganisms, there are changes at every level of the ecosystem.
Lower temperatures, shorter days and reduced sunlight levels all have an impact on natural behaviour. While there are obvious effects like hibernation and bare trees, there’s a whole world of activity below ground which many of us are unaware of.
Which animals hibernate?
Here in the UK, there are many hibernating animals including hedgehogs, dormice and bees. The common factors are a much-reduced heart and breathing rate, along with a reduced temperature and metabolic rate.
Animals that hibernate stock up on food during the Autumn and find somewhere nice and warm to spend the winter, such as compost heaps, piles of leaves or hideaways underground.
However, not all animals hibernate and many, including squirrels, hares and otters, will continue life as normal during the colder months.
Heading South for the Winter
While some birds tough it out over the winter months, many migrate to find somewhere warmer. The UK loses some of its bird population in the winter months, but is visited by birds who nest in Scandinavian countries and come to the UK for shelter. Even those hardier birds need to work hard over the winter, and spend most of their time looking for food to make sure they maintain the fat reserves being burnt off to stay warm.
Microbes and microorganisms
There’s an invisible world all around us on which all other plant and animal life depends. Soil microorganisms regulate the carbon levels held within the soil and released back into the atmosphere, while microbes break down organic matter in the soil so the nutrients can be absorbed by other plants.
Microbes and microorganisms do slow down over the winter, but the majority are found below the frost layer of soil where it remains warmer, and so keep working. Once the spring comes, they simply work at a faster rate.
Some types of microbe surround, and even enter, plant roots so that both can benefit. The microbes break down plant mass near the plants’ roots, enabling the plant to absorb nutrients more easily, while they benefit from the excess water the plants give through their roots.
Their continued activity all year round ensures that plants can continue to survive even when all is quiet above ground, and are ready to develop new growth in the spring.
Springing into life
As winter disappears, we can start to see the effects of all that winter activity – new plants springing up, leaves forming on trees and hibernating animals starting to appear again. We now know that winter ecology has a big role to play in providing a strong start for the entire habitat, ensuring there are nutrients in the soil for plants to draw on, in turn providing food sources for smaller creatures and on to the whole food chain, and regulating the carbon levels in the soil and surrounding air.
It proves that habitats need to be cared for all year around, and not just when it’s easy for us to spot activity in front of us.
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