Survival in the Cold by Design

Survival in the Cold by Design
Chickadee in Winter Snow

As I sit in my warm office in Michigan today, I look out at snow and ice. My outdoor thermometer registers -8 degrees, and I wonder how the ducks on the river, the squirrels on the ground, and the birds in the air handle these frigid temperatures. I enjoy watching the birds on my bird feeders and the squirrels chasing each other in the oak trees, but I wonder how they survive. Then I apply my knowledge of physics, and I understand animal survival in the cold.

I always enjoyed teaching the heat and thermodynamics section of my high school physics class. One of my lines that always got a laugh was, “Why do we need to wear clothes to survive, outside of the obvious one.” The point is that our skin is not very good insulation against the cold. In winter, we pick clothes with air spaces within the fabric because air is a very poor conductor of heat, so it insulates us from the cold. We use coats stuffed with goosedown or some facsimile to be well protected from the cold. Goosedown also insulates sleeping bags and quilts.

Chickadees visit my bird feeders regularly. They usually are relatively sleek birds that fly smoothly and efficiently. As I look at my chickadees on this day of -8 degrees, they are almost round. Their feathers are fluffed up to trap air, so the birds are well insulated for survival in the cold. They don’t fly as smoothly as they do in summer. They crowd my feeders and would sit there without moving if they could.

Squirrels have a different problem. Their coats give them some protection, but getting food is an issue when heavy snow covers everything. They need to keep warm but avoid activities that would sap their reserve of nutrition. My gaze goes to the top of the oak trees, and I see a large round ball of leaves and twigs. Many years ago, to expand our church parking lot, we had to take down a tree with a large round ball of leaves and twigs near the top. As the tree came down, a squirrel ran out of the ball. I put my hand into the nest to see what was inside. Even though the air temperature was 20 degrees, it was very warm inside the ball of leaves and squirrel hair.

God has equipped His creatures for survival in the cold, and His design enables our Michigan winter to throb with animal activity. Trial and error explanations are weak because survival errors are lethal. We can see design in the natural world that speaks of God’s wisdom and planning. The evidence allows us to “know there is a God through the things He has made” (Romans 1:20). Watching animals thrive in very cold conditions is an excellent example of that evidence.

— John N. Clayton © 2024

Benefits and Challenges of Squirrels

Benefits and Challenges of Squirrels

We find it interesting to consider the benefits and challenges of squirrels. Now that most of our trees in this area have shed their leaves, we can see nests that are different from bird nests high in our trees. They are round and are not open on the top. The nest design programmed into the squirrel DNA has the structural integrity to withstand high winds, heavy rain or snow, and even the invasion of most predators.

Squirrels begin by weaving twigs to make a floor or platform for the nest, usually in a fork high in the tree. Next, they place damp leaves or moss on this floor and weave it around the base, making a spherical nest. Then they stuff leaves and twigs into the sphere, leaving an inner cavity which they line with shredded bark and leaves. Squirrels usually complete their construction in the fall, although they may start as early as June. They are typically solitary but may share a nest for warmth in the coldest winter months or for mating and raising their babies.

Squirrels may also take advantage of any shelter they can find. For example, they can use an old woodpecker nest in a hollow tree and line it with moss and leaves. Unfortunately, squirrels will also take advantage of human structures to nest. For example, they may exploit an abandoned car, a hole in a roof, a woodpile, or an unused boat or camper. Being aware of the abilities of squirrels gives us a way to avoid damage or problems they might cause.

Squirrels are intelligent and very athletic animals. Those of us who have bird feeders can tell many stories of how squirrels evaded our best efforts to keep them from eating the birdseed. The main diet of squirrels is nuts and seeds, but they also eat insects, grubs, and beetles. They frequently bury nuts for later use and fail to dig up a percentage of them which then grow into trees. Oak trees planted by squirrels are a significant part of reforestation in northern areas.

As we think about the benefits and challenges of squirrels, remember that they are wild animals that can spread disease and insect bites from fleas, chiggers, and tics. Despite the challenges squirrels present, these small animals are designed to give us more benefits than problems. Enjoy the creatures God has given us to serve a purpose on this planet.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Design of Symbiosis

Design of Symbiosis

One of the most interesting examples of design is the massive number of symbiotic relationships that exist in the natural world. These are arrangements two or more plants or animals benefit each other. Sometimes the design of symbiosis is essential for their survival.

Living by a river in Michigan, we see many animals that couldn’t exist without symbiotic relationships. Such common animals as squirrels need a designed symbiotic relationship that allows them gives them a growing abundance of food. We have a wealth of oak trees. In the fall, there are so many acorns on the ground that you can’t go barefoot. I counted 14 squirrels in my yard this morning, gathering acorns. They not only eat the acorns, but they bury them so that they will have a reserve of food for the rest of the year. They hide so many in so many different places that they eat only a small fraction of the acorns. The rest sprout and produce more oak trees. The oak forest spreads, and that means that the squirrel population can increase. The trees feed the squirrels, and the squirrels plant the trees in the design of symbiosis.

I grew up in the upper peninsula of Michigan. The bedrock there is mostly granite. Granite is hard, and water cannot penetrate it. That means that growing crops is difficult in the “U.P.” Animals would have it tough except that God has provided an animal with a symbiotic relationship to the soil and rocks of the area. To retain enough water to take the entire ecosystem through periods of drought, beavers construct dams in the streams. The multiple dams create small ponds that supply the water needs of plants and animals. What would otherwise be a sterile wasteland is a temperate paradise of woods with a wealth of birds and animals all dependent on the beavers. As beavers reproduce, their kits build their own system of dams and ponds, expanding the availability of water for all northern life.

What is the most expensive meal you can order when you go out to eat? Ask for the “diamonds of the kitchen” and you will be served a fungus called a truffle. A three-pound truffle recently sold for $300,000, and yet it is just a fungus. Truffles grow underground on the roots of trees. The truffle keeps bacteria and corrosive elements away from the tree roots, and the roots provide a protected place for the truffle to grow. This is another design of symbiosis. The way most people search for truffles is to have pigs root around trees until they uncover a truffle. Truffles are said to be the most expensive food in the world, but to locate them requires the use of animals that most of us don’t care to be around.

There are countless symbiotic relationships. The question of interest is, how does such a relationship develop? Is it merely by accident? We suggest God has looked at the nutritional needs of all of His creatures. In His wisdom, He has created living things in a way that links their food supply to other living things in their environment. The design of symbiosis is a marvelous creation of God.

— John N. Clayton © 2019

Seeds Are Alive

Seeds Are AliveWhen you walk into the forest and look up at the trees, it’s easy to realize that all of those structures towering over your head are alive. What you may not think about is that their seeds under your feet are alive also.

Many trees produce seeds to grow new trees. There are maple seeds with their familiar “helicopter” method of blowing in the wind. There are cottonwood seeds that look like “summer snow.” Those seeds and others are carried far away by the wind.

Oak trees produce seeds we call acorns. They’re too heavy for the wind to scatter them, so that’s the job of squirrels. Squirrels gather acorns and store them to eat later. When later comes, the squirrels have often forgotten where they stored their treasure. Instead of being eaten, the acorns grow into new trees to produce more acorns. Both the trees and the squirrels benefit from that arrangement.

The seed of a coconut tree is the coconut. The wind can’t blow coconuts around, and squirrels can’t carry them. They often grow near water, such as a stream or an ocean. A coconut falling into the sea can float to an island thousands of miles away, where it can take root and grow. Cherry trees produce their fruit with a seed we often call a pit. Birds eat the cherries and drop the seeds over a wide area.

The key to a seed beginning to grow is the breaking of the shell surrounding it. Many things can cause that to happen, such as moisture, temperature, fire, mechanical abrasion, or a combination of methods. Some seeds have to travel through the digestive system of birds or animals for them to begin to grow into a new plant.

Most seeds wait a year before they start to grow. Cherry seeds can wait for hundreds of years. Scientists discovered a lotus seed (Nelumbo nucifer) in a bog in China. They cracked the shell and started it growing. When they carbon-dated the shell, they found that the seed had been waiting for 2,000 years to sprout into a lotus plant.

Seeds are alive, waiting in dormancy to grow into what God created them to be. The amazing quality of life shows design by intelligence, not chance.
— Roland Earnst © 2019

Shivering in the Cold

Shivering in the Cold
As I write this on January 21, my outdoor thermometer says that the temperature here in Michigan is -5 degrees Fahrenheit. I just graded a correspondence course from a young lady who lives in Tennessee. She asked, “How can the squirrels I see outside live when it is so cold here, and not even shiver?” It was 35 degrees Fahrenheit where she lives. Why don’t we see squirrels and other animals shivering in the cold?

Recently an atheist said that if God did exist, He wouldn’t make incredibly cold places like Alaska. In his mind, God is just too cruel to believe in. He would rather have the whole planet be like where he lives in central Florida.

There are so many problems with that view it would take much more space to discuss them all. The fact is that many animals are designed for the cold, right on down to making their bodies not feel it. The February/March 2019 issue of National Wildlife (page 8) has an interesting discussion about species of animals that have cold-sensing nerve cells that don’t feel temperatures below 68 degrees F. This allows an animal’s body temperature to drop for long periods so they can hibernate. They do not experience the cold that would keep them awake. Animals that don’t hibernate can survive and be active in temperatures as low as 35 degrees F without feeling the cold, and they can do so for up to nine months.

There are many benefits of animal hibernation both for them and for the ecosystems in which they live. God is sensitive to the problems produced by very cold conditions or even uncomfortable temperatures for humans. He has designed not only the conditions but also the physiological makeup of the living things that exist within those systems so they won’t be left shivering in the cold.
–John N. Clayton © 2019

Fox Squirrels and My Wife

Fox Squirrels and My Wife
My wife likes to organize things. Items in our pantry are grouped together based on what is in the box or can. All of the spaghetti is stacked together on the same shelf as the spaghetti sauce. All of the soups are together on their own shelf. All the cereal is together on its own shelf. Etc. etc. etc. When I put something in the wrong place, I am chastised, and she expresses amazement at my male inability to understand the importance of organization. I recently learned that fox squirrels do the same thing.

I have often wondered why the large female squirrel I see outside my office window is chattering at the smaller male squirrel who is dashing around seemingly looking for something. It is the dead of winter here, so thoughts of baby squirrels don’t seem to be a reasonable explanation.

A recent experiment done at the University of California-Berkeley may give an answer. Squirrels sort their nuts by a process called “chunking.” Researchers at the university used GPS devices to track 45 male and female fox squirrels for two years. They gave the squirrels different kinds of nuts–almonds, pecans, hazelnuts, and walnuts. The squirrels buried the nuts in unique spots with each nut having its own location.

The researchers made the nuts available one at a time, at different times of the year, and in different locations. The pattern of distribution caused the researchers to conclude that “the squirrels use a surprisingly flexible and sophisticated memorizing strategy to cache their nuts.” I have noticed that our grey squirrels here in Michigan do the same thing. I recently found a cache of sunflower seeds that came from my bird feeders, and later found a cache of acorns. There were no sunflower seeds with the acorns and no acorns with the sunflower seeds.

Fox squirrels gather between 3,000 and 10,000 nuts a year. By using the chunking method, they know where to find each nut type. That simplifies locating food sources. Like my wife, the squirrels know where to find each unique meal item.

We need to re-examine the old idea that squirrels bury nuts at random in scattered places. There is a design feature built into the squirrels’ DNA that assures the squirrel of a more efficient way to find its stored food. Programming requires intelligence, and DNA has to be programmed to work. God has programmed all kinds of instructions into the DNA of His creatures, and this seems to be one more example of how well the process works.
–John N. Clayton © 2018
Reference: The original study was by Dr. Mikel Delgado and was contained in the journal Royal Society Open Science. It was referenced and summarized in National Wildlife, February/March 2018.