Thursday, November 29, 2012

Why Don't Fish Need Mittens?

Brrrr!  It's been cold the last few nights!  Air temperatures dropped into the mid 20's, which is way lower than freezing.  I bundled up in many layers to survive being outside for about an hour last evening.  I felt a little bad for the fish in our outdoor classroom - they are stuck in cold water without any hats or mittens or even hot cocoa to warm them up.
A mosquitofish alive and well after several nights of freezing temperatures.
Humans are like tropical animals in terms of their thermal comfort zone.  We are comfortable living in temperatures in the 60's to 90's on the Fahrenheit scale.  We have created many devices to keep ourselves at a comfortable temperature: clothes, buildings, heat, air conditioning, insulation and ice cubes all help us maintain comfortable body temperatures whether we are in the tropics or in the Arctic.  Animals can be classified as endotherms or ectotherms, and we are of the endotherm variety.  Endotherms use some of the energy in the food they eat to keep their bodies warm.  Even though the temperature of the air inside our buildings is usually around 72 degrees, our bodies stay at 98.6 degrees.  Mammals, birds and even some fish like tuna can keep their body temperature warm using energy from food.

Mosquitofish are happy as clams in a much broader range of temperatures than we can stand.  They can live in the very warm water of shallow sunny pools in the summer, and they can survive a fairly cold winter too.  Mosquitofish are ectotherms, like most fish, amphibians, reptiles, insects and mollusks.  They don't keep their body temperature warm - they let it cool off when the environment cools off.  And as the temperature drops, they simply slow down.  Their bodies move more slowly, they eat less food, and they stay more hidden.  Many ectotherms hibernate, essentially sleeping in a cold state until the weather becomes warm enough to move around again.  If you watch our mosquitofish, you will notice that they are much slower on cold days than warm days. 

Mosquitofish can't survive if the pond freezes all they way through.  Fortunately for them, water temperature usually doesn't get as low as air temperature, so the pond is going to be warmer than the air temperature, and it won't usually freeze.  Also, ponds freeze at their surface, then the ice acts as an insulator, keeping the lower layer of the pond from freezing.  So even if you see ice on our pond this winter, it is likely that the mosquitofish will be swimming slowly in the water under the surface. 

Do mosquitofish feel cold?  I don't know.  I suppose you would have to put a mosquitofish in a fish tank with a cold area and a warm area and see where it chooses to spend its time!

Here are some other ways you can see organisms responding to the temperature at the outdoor classroom this week:

It's easy to see which plants survive freezing right now.  I'll write about this more in the deep winter, but it's probably easier to see now before the dead plants blow away and decompose.  The dead leaves in the picture below didn't survive freezing.  Either their seeds will survive the winter or their roots will survive in the ground, but it will not grow again until the spring.  The plant on the left is just fine with freezing temperatures, and it will stay growing, though very slowly, through the winter.  there are lots of winter-growing plants in our classroom.
The fern on the left survived freezing, the plant on the right did not.
The honey bees are still drinking at our pond on warm days!  They must have a fairly warm location for their hive.  Bees do some temperature regulation of their hives by eating food then shaking their wings really hard inside the hive to generate heat.  Our bodies do a similar thing - they shiver to generate heat.  Bees also flap their wings to fan the hive if it gets too hot.  Even though insects are ectotherms, bees have some endotherm ability.  Neat!
Honey bees are still drinking from our pond on warmer days despite the freezing nights.




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