Hello out there to all of you in biomimicry land, as winter perhaps is winding down to a close ( a gross assumption I make by the fact that all the three foot long icicles on my house have finally fallen off) I have come to the determination that when it comes to winter we do it wrong, yes that’s right, you read correctly, wrong. Every time that we have ventured out into subfreezing temperatures -17˚, -30˚, even a simple 0˚C, our approach to the weather has been in error.
As humans, one of the many mammalian homeotherms, we have gotten cocky with our sophisticated internal thermoregulation. We heedlessly toss ourselves out into severe environments when all sanity says it would make much more sense to stay enclosed in our built homeostatic structures. Sure, a day or two skiing, making snowmen, feeling the crisp wind nibbling ears and noses is wonderful, but only on the condition that we know it’s going to stop. Over the course of the winter the snowmen have becomes less a pastime and more a menace of looming barbarian hordes. The nibbling of extremities has become full course meals, and the daily skiing across the parking lot to my car I don’t think achieves quite the right sort of thrill as I battle daily to prove that I still know how to walk upright. I quest for the indoors wondering what evolutionary help should come from being able to feel the difference between -27 and -30˚. I cannot imagine a situation where those three degrees would mean something more benevolent or harsh, “We’ll I’m sorry ma’am, your husband stood a chance of making it back from his car but the temperature dropped those extra degrees so he simply froze in place.” Too bloody cold is too bloody cold, after a point the ability to actually feel the minute differences is of no help.
I have to think that many of the poikilotherms have the right idea. For instance, wood frogs – as soon as they feel the first ice crystals – form urea and glucose to saturate their cells with, and remove much of the body’s water, allowing them to freeze solid from the inside out, or at least 65% solid. Heartbeat and breathing completely stop. “Yes gentlemen we now have frog-cicles.” If this worked for us, when winter comes we could just turn off our lights, sit out on our porches on deck chairs, and wait till the snow melt and spring come.
Cordylid lizards have melanin pigments that allow them to warm up surprisingly fast in cold climates thanks to the extra heat absorption the pigments provide. This particular trick has not yet worked for me. No matter how dark I have become over the summer I still seem to freeze pretty thoroughly once the temperature drops below zero in the winter months.4
Sidewinder rattlesnakes tend toward a more social approach to regulating temperature in extreme weather of either cold or heat. Families gather into large snake balls rotating position slowly from internal to external positions allowing internal ball temperature to stay constant.5 If it wasn’t for the need to maintain a living by going out, this is actually the closest to what I already tend to do. The family gathers all in one room and does all the activities there, whether it be studying, working or relaxing. It’s not quite as personal as snakes, but hey, what can I say “We’re only warm blooded.”
As human homeotherms we don’t even allow ourselves to hibernate like several of the large mammals, or to reach periodic states of stupor like many of the smaller rodents do to conserve energy. As winter drags its heels about leaving, I think the time has come to admit that perhaps we need a new strategy for dealing with the season, or at least borrow one from some of our animal friends. Snow, ice freezing wind, we’ve tried besting, we’ve tried playing with, I think it’s time that we found a way to just accept that it’s there and postpone all meaningful activity until we get a real spring.
1 Akin, J. (2011, March 3). Homeostatic Processes for Thermoregulation. Retrieved March 8, 2015, from http://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/homeostatic-processes-for-thermoregulation-23592046
2Reviving Ted Williams. (2010, December 10). Retrieved March 8, 2015, from https://quantumbiologist.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/reviving-ted-williams/
3It’s Winter Time – So Dress Well to Stay Warm. (2013, December 18). Retrieved March 8, 2015, from https://bluewatersgreenforests.wordpress.com/2013/12/18/its-winter-time-so-dress-well-to-stay-warm/
4Clusella-Trullas, S. (2009). Thermal benefits of melanism in cordylid lizards: A theoretical and field test. ESA Ecology, 90(8). Retrieved February 19, 2015.
5Reiserer, R., Schuett, G., & Earley, R. (2007). Dynamic aggregations of newborn sibling rattlesnakes exhibit stable thermoregulatory properties. Journal of Zoology, 277-283.