When summer and fall fade and winter approaches, animals respond in different ways. Many birds fly south to warmer climates. Some mammals tuck into a den (or your basement) to wait out the cold. Some creatures don’t mind the cold and go about their business.
But what about Maine’s reptiles and amphibians? About 40 species of frogs, turtles, salamanders, newts and snakes live in the state, but they don’t have fur or feathers to keep them warm. Plus, being cold blooded, these creatures are especially sensitive to temperature. So how can they survive a frigid Maine winter? Let’s break it down.
Maine’s aquatic frogs, including the leopard frog and the American bullfrog, ride out the winter underwater. They nestle into the muddy bottom of a lake or pond and continue breathing through their skin.
Maine’s only toad, the American toad, digs down into the dirt below the frost line.
Terrestrial frogs stay on land. The spring peeper, for example, takes shelter under leaf litter or under a log and goes dormant until spring. And the wood frog is especially noteworthy, as it lets much of its body freeze, even ceasing to breathe while a specially produced antifreeze keeps its vital organs functioning until spring.
As with frogs, there is a split here between aquatic and terrestrial species of turtles. Many of Maine’s turtles live in the water and spend the winters down in the mud at the bottom. However, turtles are often less dormant than frogs and can sometimes be seen swimming around underneath the ice.
Land-dwelling turtle species like the eastern box turtle burrow beneath leaf litter and remain dormant and motionless during the cold season. And not to be forgotten, the several species of sea turtles found in the Gulf of Maine in the summer all swim south to warmer waters in winter.
Maine snakes typically ride out the winter in a rocky crevice. Some species go solo, but others, like the common garter snake, clump together in group hibernation areas called hibernacula. Huddling up doesn’t produce heat, but their combined mass insulates them enough to prevent their bodies from freezing.
Like turtles, some of Maine’s fully aquatic salamanders remain active in winter, foraging along the bottom of lakes and ponds. Other species take shelter in logs or in the leaf litter, and still others burrow into the ground.
The vast majority of Maine’s reptiles and amphibians snuggle into a cozy nook, either on the muddy lake bottom or in the ground, and lie dormant until spring. Though I don’t think I’d trade places with an amphibian, I think about them while I’m scraping the ice off my car or shoveling my driveway, and wonder which of us has a better strategy for winter survival.
A birder and writer, Nick Lund is the outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon, a statewide organization that works to conserve Maine’s wildlife and wildlife habitat by engaging people of all ages in education, conservation and action.