Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival

Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival

by Bernd Heinrich


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From flying squirrels to grizzly bears, and from torpid turtles to insects with antifreeze, the animal kingdom relies on some staggering evolutionary innovations to survive winter. Unlike their human counterparts, who must alter the environment to accommodate physical limitations, animals are adaptable to an amazing range of conditions.

Examining everything from food sources in the extremely barren winter land-scape to the chemical composition that allows certain creatures to survive, Heinrich's Winter World awakens the largely undiscovered mysteries by which nature sustains herself through winter's harsh, cruel exigencies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061129070
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/07/2009
Series: P.S. Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 261,722
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

The author of numerous bestselling and award-winning books, Bernd Heinrich is a professor of biology at the University of Vermont. He divides his time between Vermont and the forests of western Maine.

Read an Excerpt

Winter World
The Ingenuity of Animal Survival

Chapter One

Fire and Ice

Microscopic life evolved some 3.5 billion years ago in the Precambrian period during the first and longest chapter of life that covers about 90 percent of geological time. No one knows exactly what the earth was like when microbial life began but we do know that at some time the earth was a hot and hellish place with an atmosphere that lacked oxygen. Early microbes, probably bluegreen algae or bacterialike organisms, invented photosynthesis to harness sunlight as a source of energy. They took carbon dioxide out of the air as their food, and they generated oxygen as a waste product that further transformed the atmosphere and hence the climate. They developed DNA for storing information, invented sex, which produced variation for natural selection, and evolution took off on its unending and largely unpredictable course.

Molecular fingerprinting suggests that every life-form on earth today originated from the same bacterialike ancestor. That ancestor eventually led to the three main surviving branches of life, the archaea, bacteria, and the eukaryotes (the organisms made of cells with a nucleus that include algae, plants, fungi, and animals).

Remnants of the first ancient pre-oxygen-using life may still exist little-changed today. They are thought to be sulphur-consuming bacteria now living only in the few remaining places where the ancient and to us hellish conditions still remain. These habitats include hot springs and deep oceanic thermal vents where water at 300°C (that stays liquid there rather than turning to steam because it is under intense pressure in depths of some 3,600 meters) issues up from the ocean floor. One of the species living at the edge of these hot water vents is Pyrolobus fumarii, which can't grow unless heated to at least 90°C, and which it tolerates 113°C. As the earth cooled new environments became available and new single-celled and then multicelled organisms evolved from these or similar species to invade ever-new and cooler environments.

Some cells much later also escaped their ancestral conditions by invading other cells, finding that environment conducive for survival and adapting to it. Such initially parasitic organisms ultimately evolved into cooperative or symbiotic relationships with their hosts. Perhaps the most fateful of these eventually mutually beneficial associations occurred when some Precambrian green algae successfully grew inside other cells, to ultimately become chloroplasts, while their hosts then became green plants.

The ability to capture solar energy that ushered in the multicellular life and the fantastic diversity of life we see today was followed by or concurrent with one other critical parasitic-turned-symbiotic cellular invasion. The availability of oxygen from plants led to energy and oxygen-guzzling bacteria, and when some of these invaded other cells they became mitochondria and their hosts became animals.

Mitochondria are the cell's source of power or energy-use, and having mitochondria with access to oxygen allowed vastly greater rates of energy expenditure. It made the evolution of multicellular animals possible. One of the ultimate expressions of the high-energy way of life that is powered by the use of mitochondria is, of course, animals like the kinglets that maintain a liveness at an, to us, almost unimaginably high and sustained rate through a northern winter.

The metabolic fires generated by the mitochondria can be fanned to run on high, given the availability of much oxygen, or they may be turned down low. Life is the process that harnesses, and more importantly, controls that fire. It produces heat, and heat is often synonymous with life.

Temperature is, to us, a sensation measured on a scale of hot to cold. Physically, it is molecular motion, and we can measure it with a thermometer because the greater the motion of the molecules of a substance, say mercury, the farther apart they are spaced. We measure this molecular expansion as mercury (or some other liquid) in a column is displaced up a calibrated scale. The molecular motion, as such, is not life but a prerequisite for it.

Heat, on the other hand, is the energy that goes in or out of the system to change temperature. Some substances must absorb more energy (from the sun for example) before their molecules are set into motion, raising the temperature. One calorie is the unit of energy defined to raise one gram of water one degree Celsius. Substances, like rock, heat up with much less energy than that required to heat water. Again, energy is not life, but a prerequisite for it, and life is insatiable for it. What is truly miraculous, therefore, is that life continues and even thrives in winter, when the sun is low.

There is no upper limit of temperature. Within our solar system, the surface temperature of the sun is about 6,000°C; the center is about 3,000 times higher, or 18,000,000°C. The lower temperature limit in the universe, on the other hand, is finite. It's the point at which all molecular motion stops and the heat energy content is zero. That temperature precludes living, but from adaptations to the winter world that I will discuss, it need not destroy life. Life can, at least theoretically, persist on hold at the lowest temperature in the universe.

Our centigrade scale is defined as a 100-arbitrary-unit division of heat energy content of water, between when water molecules leave the crystal structure to become liquid (0°C) and 100°C when the liquid water boils at sea level. The zero energy content of matter, or lowest temperature limit in the universe, is defined as 0°K on the Kelvin scale and it corresponds to -273.15°C or -459.7° on the Fahrenheit scale. Since life as we know it is water-based, the active cellular life that most of us are familiar with is restricted to the very narrow temperature range between the freezing and boiling points of water (which vary somewhat depending on pressure and presence of dissolved solutes) where the controlled rates of energy use become possible. We are composed mostly of water ...

Winter World
The Ingenuity of Animal Survival
. Copyright © by Bernd Heinrich. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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From the Publisher

"The stories are plain engrossing—-in their elucidation, their breadth of examples, and their barely contained sense of awe and admiration." —-Kirkus

Reading Group Guide


In Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival, biologist, illustrator, and award-winning author Bernd Heinrich explores his local woods, where he delights in the seemingly infinite feats of animal inventiveness he discovers. From flying hot-blooded squirrels and diminutive kinglets to sleeping black bears and frozen insects, the animal kingdom relies on some staggering evolutionary innovations to survive winter. Some develop antifreeze; others must remain in constant motion to maintain their high body temperatures. Even if animals can avoid freezing to death, they must still manage to find food in a time of scarcity, or store it from a time of plenty.

Beautifully illustrated throughout with the author's delicate drawings and infused by his inexhaustible enchantment with nature, Winter World awakens the wonders and mysteries by which nature sustains itself through winter's harsh, cruel exigencies.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Throughout Winter World, Jack London's story, "To Build a Fire," which is about a foolish man in winter, is used as a backdrop for adaptations numerous animals have made. Why do you think the author returns to this story so often? What does it say about the superiority of humans to animals?

  2. Beavers can live under ice for up to six months. While hibernating, bears mysteriously suffer no bone or muscle loss, and do not need water. Kinglet pairs simultaneously raise two broods of eight to ten young each. Chipmunks build a 12-foot burrow system. Turtles can live up to a year without food. Nutcrackers collect as many as 30,000 pine seeds for storage in caches up to 15 kilometers away from each other -- and remember where to find 80 percent of them. Which animal described in Winter World impresses you the most for its ability to survive winter? Why?

  3. Discuss the drive certain people have to forgo the comforts of the modern world in order to get closer to nature. Could you see yourself as one of those people? Would you be able to live in a primitive cabin in Maine in the winter like the author does?

  4. "Scientific discoveries, like most surprises, come by luck, and luck comes by keeping moving and having a keen nose to detect anomalies." The author makes some of his most profound discoveries this way. Is it luck or is it persistence coupled with the ability to see and decipher? Have you ever discovered something by luck? What was it?

  5. Heinrich's father sold fleas to the Rothschilds and periodically set mice free in his house to demonstrate his pet weasel's hunting ability to guests. What do you imagine their day-to-day life or dinner conversation was like? How do you think it influenced the author? What does the author reveal about his home life now as an adult?

  6. Hibernation and other winter adaptations may offer insight into numerous human medical matters, including stroke, aging, space flight, and osteoporosis. Heinrich strongly believes that research should be pure, out of intellectual curiosity, not conducted for applied purposes. Do you agree with him? Why or why not? Are these two concepts diametrically opposed?

  7. Heinrich has an extremely high tolerance for infestations -- the carpenter ants that for years threatened to destroy his house and thousands of ladybugs that would try to crawl into his family's eyes at night. Is this taking a respect for nature too far? Could you live with these pests? What is the worst infestation you can imagine or have heard of?

  8. We learn that coagulated hardened bird spit is considered a delicacy in some Asian cultures. What are some other surprising things people eat?

About the Author

Bernd Heinrich is the author of Mind of the Raven, which won the John Burroughs Medal for Natural History Writing and was a New York Times and Los Angeles Times Notable Book as well as a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Science and Technology Award. He is also the author of Bumblebee Economics, which was nominated for the National Book Award, and The Trees in My Forest, which won a New England Book Award. A professor of biology at the University of Vermont, Heinrich also spends time in the forests of western Maine, where he has done much of his field research and training for ultramarathons.

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Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Of his books that i have read(3) each one was as much about the story and the language as about our natural ecology. From "A Year in the Maine Woods" I learned a simple recipe for bread that I still use today (15 years
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Understanding how birds animals and insects survive winter Is just the beginning of this book. A delight for anyone who enjoys the outdoors.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this fascinating, informative book this past winter but now that is spring I find myself referring back to it: What was that again about those bird's nests... Let me review about beavers. .. Gosh that was amazing about bears in their dens... I am looking forward to reading more by this author.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a marvelous book for anyone who wants to learn more about nature. It is a biology class that you want to attend. Where was this teacher when I was in college? I am ready to pack my bags and move to a cabin in Maine!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The depth of Heinrich's observations is so engaging and personal that he helped me share the empathy that he has for each of the creatures he describes. His awe at the scope and variety of evolutionary adaptation is something I will try to take with me every time I go out into forest and field. These things will open my heart and my eyes wider so I can understand more.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Anyone who hikes in the winter cannot help but marvel at how animals survive! This answers that question in a compelling manner. It inspires one to go out into the tundra and simply be awed.
bas615 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up as I was buried in 3 feet of snow and the question of cold weather survival was towards the front of my mind. However, until i stopped to think about it the severity of the situation faced by so many species had not come home to me. But Heinrich does an excellent job of setting forth the different challenges for different animals and then showcasing the multitude of adaptations that make survival possible. He has researched quite extensively and this research is then joined with his personal observations, which he has documented quite precisely. The study of animals in such extreme circumstances is quite difficult and this is mirrored in the lack of research in many areas. The author often presents his own theories in the lack of definitive research and explains his thought process without claiming to have solved the puzzle.The adaptations touched on in this book are extraordinary. I feel that our society has lost so of its appreciation of the awe inspiring quality of nature. As we grow more sheltered from the natural world we have become fascinated with technological advances. Meanwhile, nature offers some of the most wondrous and captivating advances in all of history. To imagine an organism that can let its blood freeze and then bring itself back to life is amazing. To think of a frog that is able to survive for 5 months without breathing is mind-boggling. This complexity and creativity of the natural world need to be shared if there is ever to be a serious movement to sustain diversity on this planet.There are times when the writing is fairly scientific but I view that as a necessity to understand such complex organisms. In no way is this language beyond the comprehension of a lay reader. I would recommend this book to anyone that wants to respark that passion for the wonder of nature.
EmilyBarber on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The first book by Bernd Heinrich I read, it was also one that I devoured and enjoyed immensely. One thing that comes across strongly in the book is how serious Heinrich is about his research - among other "crazy" things, he collects and microwaves dead birds to see how quickly they lose body heat. That takes devotion. But coupled with this seriousness about science is the ability to convey what's he's found out in a way that is accessible and interesting to the average reader, and that's what makes him such a great author.
jlparent on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I wanted to like it. I enjoyed some bits, but most often I felt like it was either too much surface info or not enough. There are beautiful sketches inside of various animals, which is nice. But about halfway through I gave up, due to being overloaded too often, not given enough info when he finally did peak my interest, and the jumbled overall feeling of disorganization. I think some good editing would have made this readable.
lindseynichols on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Lovely, meditative reading on how animals survive the north woods' winters. Includes information on dormancy, torpor, hibernation, "antifreeze" in blood, etc. Animals discussed include weasels/ermine, kinglets, chipmunks, moths, bees, and many others. My favorite section involved the goings-on of mice living in the sub-nivean (under-snow) zone. This is an Intriguing, well-written book that brings a much-needed chill to any sweltering summer day.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There's a quote from Heinrich's father about the suffering of animals that I often think of when it's cold out and I dont feel like filling the feeder and bird baths. The energy balance of small critters in the winter balances on the edge of a knife; it's amazing how they survive.
NookLover2012 More than 1 year ago
Very interesting. I like the way he mixes science and nature easy to read for people without a science background. He explains everything in everyday terms. This book was required for a class and completely loved reading it. Glad to add it to my library.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
And we call ourselves the intelligent species! The ingenious adaptations to habitat portrayed by these creatures, the astonishing physiological changes actuated by so many others, it is mind boggling! Great seasonal read for those of us who must resort to the match for winter survival.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fascinating story about winter survival mechanisms of various organisms in the northwoods of Maine.
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