Nature’s Secrets

Breakfast with chipmunks

May 19, 2013 

Meg Lowman, an N.C. State University professor and forest canopy expert, directs the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ Nature Research Center.

“One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.”

– Luciano Pavarotti

opera singer

One of the best parts of spring is waking up with Mother Nature. Eagerly hitting the trail for an early morning walk, I was confronted by a charismatic denizen of the temperate forest: a chipmunk. He trembled in haste among the leaf litter, foraging for his cache of buried nuts, and ravenously nibbling extraneous pine needles as part of his banquet-on-the-go. I was struck by his frantic attitude. Was he anticipating the next snowfall? Or did he fear an imminent enemy about to pounce? Throughout his feeding frenzy, he did not relax for even a minute.

I could not help but compare his behavior to the animals of tropical forests. Sloths in Panama hardly ever move, casually taking a bite of leaves here and there; egrets in the Everglades strategically stand still for long periods during a fishing expedition. Many Amazon insects exhibit the same behavior all year long.

A geographical law of nature was unfolding before my eyes. Closer to the poles, animals experience relatively short summers. To survive, temperate and arctic critters must eat, grow, mate, nest, rear young, and gain weight in a relatively short summer season before the onset of winter. But organisms in the tropical equatorial forests do not experience the same extremes of the temperate zones, and – though competition for resources is nonetheless tough – they do not anticipate the rigors of leaf-fall and freezing temperatures.

There are always exceptions; but most animals and plants living closer to the poles pack a lot of activity into a relatively shorter season as compared to their tropical counterparts.

In the natural world of North Carolina, every animal is finely tuned to perform perfectly within its environment. But what happens when that environment changes suddenly? How will the predicted trends of warmer temperatures, higher storm surges or sudden clearing of forests affect the survival of natural populations? With such rapid changes, the laws of Mother Nature are put to the test. But I cheer for the chipmunk, with high hopes that he will adapt and continue to find his breakfast despite a changing environment.

Citizen science activity: Did you know that North Carolina represents the southeastern edge of the range of the eastern chipmunk? The N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences is mapping the distribution of chipmunks to better understand their role in our state. If you observe a chipmunk, please join our citizen scientist team by submitting your observation to http://bit.ly/S5AuXm.

Meg Lowman, an N.C. State University professor and forest canopy expert, directs the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ Nature Research Center. Online: canopymeg.com.

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