Winter’s Tiny Surprises

For many of us, winter in Michigan is known for the calm feeling that snow brings. If you’ve ever spent time in a forest during winter, you know how quiet it can feel. Just a few birds chirping and the trees creaking as they sway in the wind.

But there is much more happening in the snow than meets the eye. In addition to mammals whose footprints you may see bounding through the snow—like rabbits, mice, and squirrels—there are also several much smaller species that you may be surprised to learn, thrive in winter as well.

Snow fleas

No, not the kind that will happily hitch a ride and live on your pets. Snow fleas are actually more closely related to crustaceans but, according to the Farmer’s Almanac, are so-called because of the visual similarity and ability to jump long distances respective to their size much like fleas.

Snow fleas—or “springtails” if you prefer—are an essential part of their ecosystem, helping to create healthy topsoil as they feed on decaying organic matter like leaves. Though snow fleas are active throughout the year, they are much easier to spot in winter as tiny bluish-black dots starkly contrasted against the white snow, especially on warmer days as the snow begins to melt.

Snow fleas gather in a boot print in the snow. Photo by Robb Johnston.

Snow mosquitoes

If you love the cooler months for the lack of blood-sucking insects, you may be disappointed to learn that there is a special species of mosquito active in the winter months. But unlike the mosquitoes we typically see in the summer that feed on humans and animals, the males of the winter species get their sustenance from juices extracted from plants. Their eggs are then laid in pools of melting snow, and the larvae feed on algae as they mature.

(Left) A mosquito on spotted coralroot plant in summer, photo by Gary Hofing. (Right) Snow mosquito, photo by Lauren Ross.

Stoneflies

The larvae of stoneflies live deep in the cool water of rivers and streams, where oxygen is abundant. In the winter months when most other aquatic insects are absent and the surfaces of these bodies of water cool the stonefly is able to reach maturity, mating and laying their eggs over the course of approximately two weeks. As spring turns to summer and the surface water warms again, the hatched ‘nymphs’ enter a hibernation period which keeps them safe from predation so that they can mature when winter returns.

Nature in Michigan is full of life in all seasons. So although it may get quiet and harder to see when the snow falls, there is still much to be seen if you look closely enough. So leave the bug repellents at home and head out to an MNA Nature Sanctuary near you to explore all that Michigan nature has to offer this winter!

Making an Impact as an MNA Intern

by Emma Kull, MNA Communications Intern

Like many who now work in the field of conservation, I grew up with a special affinity to animals. Of course, I loved the ones that lived in my home. We would always compare our house to a zoo–and by ‘we’, I mean my dad, who was constantly attempting to be the voice of reason whenever my sister and I would point at a new creature in a pet store and yell ‘that one!’. I loved all animals, though, not just the ones who relied on me to take care of them. I loved the deer that would occasionally stroll beyond the nearby park boundaries and wander into our front yard. I loved the moles that our neighbors would spend hours trying to get off their property. I loved the chipmunks that would find their way into our attic and drive everyone mad, the birds that would sing to us in the morning, and the squirrels that ran up and down our fences all afternoon. I wasn’t sure how to help them, but I desperately wanted to do something. Naturally, when it came time for me to choose a field of study in college, that admiration and appreciation of animals played a large role in my decision.

Emma Kull at a natural area in Michigan. Photo courtesy Emma Kull.

Now a graduate of Michigan State University, I have more than a love for animals, but an understanding of them as well. This is key to doing any conservation work, and a lesson that I continue to learn everyday in the work that I do both at Howell Nature Center, and at the Michigan Nature Association.

At Howell Nature Center, I work directly with injured, impaired, and sick wildlife. The reality of working with wildlife is that it is hard. There are hundreds of animals that can’t be saved, and that is a call that someone has to make nearly every day. Sometimes even more difficult, is the ones that can be saved – these are the ones that you have to let go. Protecting wildlife is not about caretaking them. The best case scenario when an injured animal comes in is that they are released back into the wild. The part of you that loves animals wants to keep them safe in your care forever, but the part of you that understands animals knows they need to be wild.

Photo courtesy Emma Kull.

As an intern at MNA, I get to experience a whole other side of conservation work. This often looks like the ‘bigger picture’. In order to protect biodiversity and maintain healthy ecosystems, we must work to conserve habitats and species populations, not just individual animals. I’ve found the experience I’ve gained already at MNA to be invaluable as a tool for promoting conservation efforts. Though it is very different from the work I do at Howell Nature Center, it is closely related in that it promotes the true needs of the environment and wildlife. Once again, this comes with a true understanding of animals and not just an innate admiration.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to receive an opportunity to work at the Detroit Zoo over the summer. I am inspired by all of the important and groundbreaking work the DZS is doing for the welfare of their animals and the conservation of species in the wild. If you’re a frequent visitor of the Detroit Zoo, you might not see every animal every time. This is because the Detroit Zoo is a leading zoo in captive animal welfare and designs their exhibits with an emphasis on the individual animal’s wellbeing. Though guest experience is also extremely important, it is never allowed to interfere with the zoo’s important mission of ‘Saving and Celebrating Wildlife’. Thus, instead of keeping resident animals in smaller habitats with fewer shelters to make them more visible to guests, the Detroit Zoo teaches guests that their animals are more than just a sight to see. They focus on educating the public on important conservation issues, and they bring together people and animals through animal ambassador programs that are safe for the animals and provide guests with a more close-up picture. I’m proud to have a zoo in our community that is leading the way in these important issues, and I am excited to contribute to those efforts.

When you care about animals the way I do, it is such a rewarding experience to work to protect them, even if it’s not quite how you imagined it being as a kid. It can be more challenging than expected and often much less hands on. It can even be upsetting or heartbreaking. However, it is truly worth it for the change that you’ll make, the amazing people that you’ll meet, and all the creatures that you’ll help.

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In the fall of 2021, Emma Kull began a graduate program at the University of Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School in the Environment and Sustainability program. We thank Emma for her contributions to MNA’s work and wish her the best in her endeavors. You can make a difference too as a Communications Intern with the Michigan Nature Association. Visit michigannature.org to learn more about how to apply.

Nurturing a Symbiotic Relationship with Michigan Nature

by Dan Burton, MNA Sanctuary Steward

March signals the end of another winter, woody invasive shrubs removal season. It is not exactly a season noted on the calendar or managed by regulators, but is well known to many volunteer stewards. For me the season begins when the trees have lost most of their leaves in late fall and ends as sap begins to swell overwintered buds in early spring. As I recently toured a prairie fen I steward noting this season’s piles of cut invasive shrubs and open canopy, I was excited for the restoration work completed. I was also saddened to see another season go, even though I knew it meant spring was around the corner.

Before restoration work. Photo by Dan Burton.

There is something about this restoration work that I find very rewarding. It is tough physical work in cold winter conditions, but I am still drawn (if not addicted) to it. Part of the draw is working outside immersed in the natural elements that awaken dormant senses not unlike the hours I spend hiking and canoeing. Part of it is the physical tasks that drain my ageing body’s meager energy reserves taking with it pent-up anxiety from everyday life and yet somehow leaving me recharged. Part of it is the positive feeling of helping out an underdog prairie fen as it fights off a formidable foe in invasive shrubs. The prairie fen has historically had the help of fire in this battle, but that friendly partner has been mostly absent these days and sorely missed by many of the prairie fen’s native flora and fauna that benefit from the open canopy created.

Another part is the human elements I find outdoors even when working solo. I usually get to work with some dedicated like minded volunteers and enjoy the camaraderie, but COVID restrictions made this a solo season. As this season came to an end and I looked around the prairie fen I had worked so hard to help in its struggle against invasive intruders, I found myself alone and thinking about my stepdad and his brother who introduced me to the outdoors as a kid. They are both gone now and in some way, I think I was hoping they would be proud of the restoration work, its benefit to wildlife, and how they played a role in it by introducing me to the outdoors so many years ago.

After restoration work. Photo by Dan Burton.

As I rested on a weathered downed tree tossing back trail mix, faded fond memories of early morning fishing and hunting trips with the two of them drifted in lifting my spirits. They would be proud of the restoration work, but being old school they likely would have questioned my sanity. It does seem crazy to think of the hours, effort and resources I put into volunteer stewardship, yet I benefit as much as the prairie fen and its fantastic native flora and fauna. I guess you could simply say I am in a symbiotic relationship with a pretty prairie fen and thankful for its many mutual benefits.


Learn more about how you can become a Sanctuary Steward with MNA and start nurturing your symbiotic relationship today at michigannature.org.

Species Spotlight: Fairy Shrimp

by Emma Kull, MNA Communications Intern

A vernal pool fills with water around the springtime, bringing new life. Here, a small crustacean hatches; a lesser known relative of the lobster.

This crustacean’s common name, fairy shrimp, is the perfect nod to its graceful demeanor in the water and its small, delicate body. These aquatic dancers glide through the water on their backs by slowly rippling their eleven pairs of legs to create propulsion. They vary in size but are typically around three quarters of an inch long.

Fairy shrimp photo courtesy Michigan Natural Features Inventory.

The fairy shrimp would not be able to survive without the protective habitat created by the emergence of vernal pools each year. Though the ephemeral nature of vernal pools makes them a safe place for fairy shrimp to live without fish predators, surviving in such impermanent conditions is no small task. Fortunately, fairy shrimp are well adapted to do just that.

Once their eggs hatch, fairy shrimp have relatively short life cycles, only about a few weeks, allowing them to age and usually reproduce within the short window provided by the pool. In the case that the vernal pool dries up too quickly for the fairy shrimp to reproduce, these clever crustaceans have a backup strategy. Each spring, only a segment of the fairy shrimp eggs that had been laid the previous year will hatch, leaving the rest to remain dormant for potentially several years. That means that the fairy shrimp population can continue to survive, even if the pool doesn’t fill with water one year.

The presence of fairy shrimp is a sign of a healthy ecosystem, as it is considered an indicator species to confirm the presence of a vernal pool; and is exciting to behold if you are lucky enough to witness it.

Spotted salamanders are another species that use vernal pools. Photo courtesy Michigan Natural Features Inventory.

As a lead partner of the Michigan Vernal Pools Partnership, the Michigan Nature Association is committed to protecting vernal pools for all of the species that use them at a number of our more than 180 Nature Sanctuaries throughout Michigan.