Submitted by South Sound GREEN

In the face of COVID-19 and recent stay at home order, parents and guardians may find themselves looking for activities that not only keep students engaged, but also provide information about local environmental science and concerns. In our South Sound GREEN Home Based Science Project series, we will introduce and demonstrate various hands-on and at-home activities for children of all ages to do either indoors or outside!

This time, we’re learning about hibernation and why some animals choose to hibernate during the winter!

Title: Hibernating Habits

Grade Level: K-5th

Materials

  • Clothing layers (shirts, sweaters, jackets, etc.)

Background

As you’ve probably noticed, the weather in Washington lately has been pretty cold! We’re about to cross into the official beginning of winter, but the temperature certainly makes it feel like we’re already there. With the coming of winter, there are a lot of changes to the natural environment. Some of these are obvious, like leaves fall off of trees, while other changes are a bit harder to notice. If you have been observing your environment regularly, you might begin to see fewer small mammals, like chipmunks and bats. These animals aren’t gone – they’re just hibernating!

Hibernation is a way for certain animals to survive over winter. These animals simply wouldn’t be able to find enough food or stay warm enough to survive normally, so instead they eat a lot of food in the summer and fall to store energy for the winter. When the weather gets colder, these animals find a safe place to effectively enter a deep sleep for the next few months, slowing their breathing, heart rate, and metabolism in the process. This allows for the animal to slowly use up that stored energy over a long period of time, and they are able to survive in this state long enough for warm weather to come back.

Most hibernating species are small, warm-blooded animals, such as rodents and bats. Normally, these small animals need a lot of energy and are constantly looking for food, so it makes sense that in winter, when food in the wild is not always available, they hibernate instead. Another species commonly associated with hibernation are bears, though bears actually don’t technically hibernate because their body temperature stays warmer than true hibernators. Either way, bears spend the majority of the winter resting in a state of deep sleep, and need to store energy beforehand to keep warm.

This bear is getting ready to hibernate! Picture credit: NHPR.org
A hibernating squirrel. Picture credit: EurekAlert

When animals are preparing for hibernation, they do so by storing fat. Fat is used to store energy from food until it is needed in the future. As a warm-blooded animal, when you get cold, your body will work to warm you up by using energy stored in fat. Additionally, fat can act as insulation, which reduces how much heat is lost. One reason your hands and feet get a lot colder than other parts of your body is because they don’t have as much insulation. Even if your body was creating a lot of heat, you might not feel so warm if you didn’t have anything to keep that heat in.

Ever wonder how your winter coat can keep you so warm, even though it’s not creating any heat? It’s because a coat is providing extra insulation – the warmth you feel when wearing a coat is actually all coming from you! The coat just helps trap it close to your body for longer. Want to see how different types of insulation can keep you warm this winter? Try the activity below!

Procedure

  • For this activity, you’ll need to gather a lot of different layers of clothing – shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, heavy coats, pants, snow/rain pants, socks, etc. Gather up whatever you have before you begin!
  • For this activity, you will be going outside to test how warm you are with different clothing. If you are feeling cold while outside, come back inside quickly!
  • Imagine that you are an animal such as a chipmunk or a bear. First, you will be in your “summer fur”. During these months when the weather is warmer and there is a lot of food available, you probably need very little insulation. To replicate this, get dressed in typical summer clothes – t-shirt, shorts, flip flops, etc.
  • Step outside into the winter air for up to three seconds. You probably were very cold! This is why animals need to change their bodies for the winter and add insulation.
Do you think this man is cold? Picture credit: The Telegraph
  • Now you are going to find your “winter fur”. To experiment with the best way to keep warm, start by putting your warmest coat and pants over your “summer fur” (don’t forget socks and shoes too!).
  • Step outside into the cold again. This time, you’ll probably feel a little warmer! This is because you’ve added insulation to help trap some of your body heat, which your “summer fur” wasn’t doing very well. Come back inside if you start feeling cold.
  • These outer layers probably felt a little warmer, but you might have still felt a little cold. This time, start with your summer fur, but add as many layers as possible. The best way to do this is to start with thinner clothing and add thicker items towards the end. You might end up looking a little silly!
Adding layers will add insulation! Picture credit: REI
  • Stay inside for 10 minutes wearing your new “winter fur”. Now step outside again – you should feel a lot warmer!
  • Why are you so much warmer with all of these extra layers? You’ve added so much more insulation! Each of those layers of clothing will help trap heat from your body better than just one large outer layer of insulation, and staying inside for 10 minutes before going outside will warm up the insulation even before you enter the cold. When animals prepare to hibernate, they store energy in layers and layers of fat because it keeps more of their heat inside!

Vocabulary

  • Fat: A natural substance created within animals to store energy and increase insulation.
  • Hibernation: The dormant state some animals take to survive harsh conditions, essentially going into a “deep sleep”.
  • Insulation: The action of reducing heat loss, or the physical materials used to keep something warm by reducing heat loss.
  • Metabolism: Chemical reactions within cells that keep organisms alive using available energy.

Keep Learning!

South Sound GREEN (Global Rivers Environmental Education Network) is a watershed education program in Thurston County that educates, empowers and connects thousands of local students in watershed studies annually. Through South Sound GREEN, participants engage in science and engineering practices related to water quality in South Sound. For more information, visit southsoundgreen.org.

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