Montana critters try to beat the heat

Posted at 3:59 PM, Aug 10, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-10 18:29:55-04

Here’s nothing new: It’s been hot recently. How hot? So hot, I saw a dog chasing a cat and they were both walking. So hot I’m being forced to use passive verbs.

Okay, for those who suffer from the heat, extreme temperatures are no joke. However, maybe nature can teach us a few tricks to cope.

In late summer, prairie amphibians, like the Great Plains toad are underground, waiting out the heat wave.

All amphibians begin their lives in water, developing from eggs to swimming larvae (tadpoles) to adult frogs, toads or salamanders. Adult frogs focus on permanent water sources. Toads, and salamanders to a degree, are more tolerant of dry land and droughts.

Because amphibians have weak lungs, they also breathe through their skin, which can only occur if their bodies are moist. And right now, there’s not a lot of moisture on the surface of Montana’s prairie.

So, toads and salamanders must find a moist burrow or dig one. Then they wait for night or a rain shower to emerge and seek insects. See, it’s not just teenagers that sleep in the basement all day and only come out at night.

By late summer, insect species have changed. While the mosquito season has peaked and waned, grasshoppers are numerous and breeding. As any good angler knows, ‘hoppers are abundant now. Put one on a hook or use an imitation in a stream or river and you may catch a big trout.

Most grasshoppers breed in late summer and die before winter. Remember the Aesop fable about the ants and the grasshopper? The one where a starving grasshopper in autumn asks a family of ants for a bite of food. Forget it, the ants say, you played all summer while we worked. I think there’s a lesson here. But, ouch.

Anyway, grasshopper eggs overwinter in the soil. Then, depending on the species, they develop in spring and summer, just in time for hungry prairie songbirds and their nestlings to devour. Thank you, frivolous grasshopper.

Speaking of birds, many have already headed south for the winter. Those still here are rarely active at midday. And if it’s too hot, some birds get rid of extra body heat by panting. They expel through their lungs warm, moist air from overheated internal tissues.

The common nighthawk (it’s a bird but not a hawk) uses a peculiar method, going into a deep, deep sleep, called torpor, almost like a summer hibernation. To avoid predators, the nighthawk, a relative of the whip-poor-will of the South, relies on its camouflage as it slumbers away in the heat of the day.

In late summer, mammals lay low by day and become active at night. Think bears and raccoons. That’s not difficult to imagine. What would you do while wearing a fur coat this time of year?

To beat the heat, many mammals now wear a summer coat, different from their winter-time garb.

White-tailed deer, for example, shed their thick winter hair and replace it with thinner reddish-brown hair. By the early fall, their winter hair grows through the summer coat to create a gray or grayish-brown coat.

Elk are similar. Right now, they sport their summer hair, a deep reddish-brown color with little or no under coat, giving them a sleek look. But their winter coat has started to grow already and by early September, they are changing into their darker, thicker winter coat.

Perhaps nature offers you a clue on how to stay cool till the fall: Work at night, wear lighter clothing. Or just suffer and remember how cold you were six months ago.

Reporting by Bruch Auchly for MT FWP