Frigid Hold: How the Winter Months Affect an Ecosystem

This week’s blog was written by Liam B., a Gobblers and Bass alumni. Liam is a junior in high school who has attended the Wildlife Leadership Academy as both a student and an assistant team leader over the past two summers. He has participated in WLA mainly due to to his interest in wildlife overall, and notably ornithology. He plans to attend college and afterwards pursue a career with the game commission.

Throughout the year, an ecosystem can change greatly based on what season it is, not only the biological aspects of an ecosystem like the plants and animals but also the abiotic features, such as weather and landforms.

To start off, the organisms usually have the most obvious changes, so we shall cover them first. Most organisms make small but noticeable changes to their behavior based on the time of year. They are most obvious during the winter months. Some are small, like changes in diet, or movement patterns, such as with turkey and deer. Others, however, are much more obvious, such as the near total absence of an organism in an ecosystem, either due to migration or hibernation, such as with some species of birds and turtles. The few animals that do remain active during the winter are mostly endothermic (mammals and birds), and have to make small changes to their physiology, by either adding layers of fat beforehand to help carry them through these leaner periods (like in some species of rodents) or by changing their coloration, to help with camouflage (seen both in predators and prey), such as with the mustelids and grouse.

Due to all these species changing, predators and prey have to change up their tactics greatly. For example, carnivores may have a lower chance of catching prey, and it could end up being a greater expenditure of energy in the end, so they need to change up their tactics, such as catching hibernating small mammals, or straight up slowing down their bodies functions and hibernating for the time being. Herbivores have a similar but different problem, since most plants tend to either die back or lose their more appetizing structures. This is dealt with by either caching food, changing up diets, or simply leaving for greener pastures.

Skunk Cabbage, a plant that appears in the later months of winter, possesses the uncanny ability to melt the snow around it, causing snow melt and allowing for more liquid water to be added to the ecosystem.

An ecosystem is not only impacted by its biotic factors, but also its abiotic ones as well. Notably, weather, terrain, and water sources. During the winter, the weather is especially important within an ecosystem. Depending on the amount of precipitation, and what type of precipitation, it can cause certain food sources to become nearly unreachable, or simply cause a minor change in the terrain. Temperature is also important, as the low temperatures common in winter can cause bodies of water to freeze over, causing issues in acquiring water for certain organisms. It can also cause freeze damage in plants, frostbite in animals, and death in high amounts for either. Terrain changes usually are caused by the weather patterns in winter, be they high precipitation eroding a river bank, loosening soil, or frost making the soil much harder. Water sources in an ecosystem change the most in winter due to the aforementioned temperature variability.

Overall, the winter is a test of strength and endurance for any organisms within an ecosystem, due to both biotic and abiotic factors.

The photo used in this blog was sourced from the internet. It can be found here.