Winter Ecology – Montclair State University

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New Jersey School of Conservation
                                         One Wapalanne Road
                                      Branchville, NJ 07826-5116

                                  Winter Ecology
                    Subject Area: Natural Science
                    Core Curriculum Content Standards: 3.3A, 3.4A, 4.1A, 4.2D, 5.1A&B,
                             5.3A&B, 5.5A&B, 5.9A, 5.10A&B, 6.6E

       This session involves a field hike that stresses the ecological conditions of winter
including how plants, animals, and humans are influenced by, and react to such conditions.
Students may participate in a variety of activities, including recording temperature ranges and
wind chill, searching for microclimates, and animal tracking.


1. Students will identify and demonstrate the causes of winter.

2. Students will describe and search for examples of ways in which plants and animals have
adapted to winter conditions.

3. By maintaining the temperature of a warm object in the outdoors, students will discriminate
between climate and microclimate.

4. Students will compare, contrast, and evaluate the environmental effects of the ways in which
humans and animals keep themselves warm in winter.



Model Sun & Earth; Challenges of Winter Cards; Plant/Animal Adaptation Cards
Groundhog Hibernation Cards; Hot Plate & Beaker; 1 Packet Gelatin
Film Containers; Two Max/Min Thermometers; 1 Regular Thermometer
Wind Gauge & Chart; Rhododendron Chart; Dearly Beloved Game
Spring Scale; Scavenger Hunt Cards; Tracking Cards

1. Ask students what the word winter brings to mind. Make a list of their responses.

2. For plants and animals, winter can be a challenge. Show each Challenges of Winter card and
discuss how each example can make survival difficult for plants and animals.

3. Return to the card labeled " Indirect Sunlight." Do students know why the sunlight is
considered "indirect" in winter? What causes winter? Choose two students to hold the sun and
earth models and demonstrate the revolution of the earth around the sun and the earth's tilt on
its axis. You can add the rotation of the earth as well, to indicate day and night. Show how the
earth's axis always points in the same direction as the earth revolves. Therefore, the Northern
and Southern hemisphere alternately tilt away from and toward the sun. When the Northern
hemisphere is tilted away from the sun, the sun's rays are spread out over a large surface area,
instead of continuously beating down in a smaller, concentrated area, as they are in the
Southern hemisphere at that time, or at the equator at all times. At SOC, the sun is never directly
above us, as it is year round at the equator; we're too far north. On June 21, it is about 72
degrees above the horizon and on Dec. 21, it is only about 36 degrees above the horizon.
Indicate the difference in these angles with your hand. Distance of the earth from the sun has
nothing to do with the change in seasons. In fact, the earth is actually closer to the sun in winter
than in summer!

4. In preparation for the outside activities, choose one student to watch a beaker of 1 cup of
water on a hot plate until it boils. While you are waiting for the water to boil, have students
each draw a plant or animal adaptation card from the deck and discuss what each is and how
each adaptation helps wildlife to survive. Inform the students that they should commit their
adaptation to memory because they will be searching for an example of it (or related to it) when
the group goes outside. To encourage understanding of the difference between dormancy and
hibernation, show students the Groundhog Hibernation cards.

5. When the water boils, remove it from the hot plate and choose a student to pour in one
packet of gelatin and stir the gelatin vigorously. While you are waiting for the gelatin to
dissolve, point out that the adapatations discussed above can be categorized into three types:

       Structural/physical: specialized body parts (short ears, appendages, thick fur)
       Physiologica l: specialized body chemistry (alteration of body chemistry to accept
                                               seasonal change of diet)
       Behavioral: specialized behavior (migrating, dormancy, huddling)

Can the students categorize the adaptation on the card they chose?

6. When the gelatin is dissolved, fill each film container about halfway. Pair up the students
and give them each a film container. This container is a pretend "animal" that must find a
shelter outdoors to keep it warm--in other words, to keep it from hardening into jello.
Depending on the age and ability of the group, you may want to go over factors the students
should consider when searching for shelter, such as: the use of insulating materials, orientation
to winter sun, protection from wind, size of shelter, etc.

7. Give the students 3-4 minutes to find shelter for their animals. Make sure students leave the
flagging where it is visible and take note of exactly where they have hidden their animal. Wait
about ten minutes before checking the animals.

8. While you are waiting, show students the minimum/maximum thermometers. Each
thermometer indicates the coldest and warmest temperature in the last 24 hour period. The
scale on the cold side is inverted, so that negative numbers are above the zero. Each
temperature is read at the bottom of the blue line. First, have students read the high and low
temperature on the thermometer hanging in the sun on the tree. Have them calculate the range
for that day. Then, have them dig up the thermometer which has been hidden in the soil. What
was the high and low in this burrow in the ground? What was the range? Discuss the concept
of microclimates. Would this be a good shelter for an animal? Why? What would help to raise
the high and low temperatures if an animal were living there?

9. Check each "animal" that the students have hidden. If the animal can be poured out, it
survived. If it has hardened in the container, it did not. Be sure to point out the advantages and
disadvantages of each shelter.

10. Hand out the scavenger hunt cards, or use the students' memory of the animal adaptation
cards to structure a scavenger hunt in the wildlife habitat or on a brief hike. If time allows,
choose additional activities from theWinter Ecology Hike supplement sheet.

Review some of the adaptations that animals and plants have to keep themselves warm in
winter. How do humans keep themselves warm in winter? In addition to our clothes and
shelter, we heat our homes buy burning fossil fuels--oil, gas, and coal, which are also
nonrenewable resources. How does this human "adaptation" to winter affect the environment?
Is there anything we can learn from animals to keep ourselves warm in winter that might cause
less stress to the environment? Use the Wildlife Ideas for Energy Conservation to help kids
Barker, W. Winter Sleeping Wildlife. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Brown, Lauren. Weeds in Winter. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1976.

Buck, M. W. Where They Go in Winter. New York: Abingdon Press.

Morgan, A. H. Field Book of Animals in Winter. New York: Putnam Books, 1939.

Sarasy, P. Winter Sleepers. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, Inc.

Stokes, Donald W. A Guide to Nature in Winter. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1976.

Teale, E.W. Wandering Through Winter. NY: Dodd, Mead and Co.

Telease, W. Winter Botany. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1967.
                        Activities for Winter Ecology Hike
                                    Lesson Plan Supplement
                               Activity                                       Materials
Gelatin Activity: Fill the film containers with warm gelatin. Have the     beaker, hot plate,
students, in pairs, find shelter in the wildlife habitat which will keep   film containers
their gelatin from hardening (cooling) for about ten minutes. What         with flagging
resources do animals use to create warm shelters in winter?

Rhododendron Temperature: Have students observe the leaves on the          laminated chart,
rhododendron by the side door of the nature center. Compare them to        rhododendron
the chart. What is the temperature? How is curling up in cold weather      outside of nature
adaptive for the leaves?                                                   center

Max/Min Thermometers: Have students calculate the temperature              max/min
range in a 24-hour period using the max/min thermometer hanging            thermometers
under the birdfeeders and compare it to the temperature range of the
max/min thermometer buried underground. Which temperature
fluctuates the least? Why? Which place provides better shelter for an

Huddling: Have the students note the temperature using a                   two thermometers
thermometer. Give one student a second thermometer which reads the
same temperature. Have students huddle together around that
thermometer for one minute. Note the temperature. How high did it
rise? What caused it to rise? What animals might huddle in winter?

Windchill Exercise: Have students calculate the windchill by reading       thermometer,
the temperature on a thermometer and measuring the wind speed on a         wind gauge,
wind gauge. Then, use the chart to determine the wind chill. Why is it     wind chill chart
important to know the wind chill factor? Why does wind make us feel
more cold?

Deer Twig Activity: Cut a six inch birch twig with a bud on the end to     spring scale
show students what a deer might browse on in the winter. If a deer
needs to eat 5 lbs of food a day to maintain its winter weight, how
many twigs must it eat? Weigh the twig, and have students calculate
the problem. 1 lb = ~500 grams
How can deer populations affect forest growth?
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