26 Feb 2021

A Long Winter’s Nap: Humans, Hibernation, and Some Really Old Bones

Winter offers endless delights: sledding and snow forts, animal tracks criss-crossing the snowy forest floor, and countless excuses for hot chocolate. But the delights often come with biting wind and painfully cold fingers. Winter can become too much of a good thing, and many of us are eager for spring far before it arrives.
Some animals, like groundhogs, bats or bumblebee queens, skip the season altogether by hibernating. They nestle down in the fall and get ready for a season of inactivity by dropping their body temperature, metabolism, and breathing and heart rates. This allows them to conserve energy—their body fat, as long as they have enough of it, provides them the energy to survive until spring.
So it intrigued me to learn about hibernating humans. Humans! They were a different species from us Homo sapiens (Neanderthals? Homo heidelbergensis? That part’s still being worked out), and they lived over 400 thousand years ago in northern Spain.
Skulls from study site (Sima de los Huesos, northern Spain)

The fossilized bones of these ancient humans show patterns similar to those on bones of other hibernating animals. (Like those of the cave bear they found close by!) It appears that bone growth was interrupted each year while these early humans slept the winter away in caves. The fossils also indicate that they were hard-hit by diseases common to hibernating animals, such as kidney disease and bone deformations.
But it’s always been assumed that humans CAN’T hibernate. We’re too big, we need too much food, and we evolved in hot climates that wouldn’t require us to sleep for months at a time. And unlike hibernators, our bodies tend to stop working if they get too cold or stay still for months. And really, why would we bother? Humans have enjoyed fire and hunted large game for millions of years, so we don’t really need to hibernate, especially in an area as gorgeous as Spain. Right?
“Wrong!” say the researchers, who point out that these humans were living in one of the coldest, driest glacial periods of the last million years. The weather was brutal, there was little evidence of fire use (which didn’t become a regular thing for another fifty thousand years), and there wasn’t enough food to survive the winter. By contrast, other Indigenous peoples living in harsh climates, like the Inuit or Sami, could eat fish, seal, or caribou meat all year, so they never needed to hibernate.

two small fluffy big-eyed fat-tail lemurs eating orange flowers
The hibernating fat-tailed dwarf lemur shares 98% of our human genes. Its fat tail provides energy while it’s zonked out.

Not all scientists are convinced that the bones prove that humans could hibernate. But some other primates—our evolutionary cousins—sure can. The fat-tailed dwarf lemur for instance, with whom we share 98% of our genes. Why the fat tail? To provide it with energy while it’s zonked out for half the year of course! Whatever genetic basis there is for hibernation, it’s probably lurking somewhere in our genes. Convinced or not, many people are interested, and not just because some of us find winters a little long for our liking. NASA is researching the possibility of having astronauts hibernate for weeks at a time, in order to reduce the food and materials needed on long journeys to deep space.
Medical researchers are working on “inducing hibernation” in patients with severe trauma who are on the brink of bleeding to death. This would allow doctors extra time to examine patients, stop the bleeding, and perform surgery before bringing them back to, well, life.
All of this makes me appreciate how fascinating hibernation really is, was, and could be. But also, I’m now feeling awfully grateful that we don’t need to do it ourselves!

19 Feb 2021

What Happened to Vera Vixen?


What Happened to Vera Vixen?

by Nina Munteanu


It’s late December in the old-growth riparian forest of Jackson Creek, Ontario. A light snow is falling on the cedars and pines. My footfalls crunch over a frozen sponge of litter and loam as I maneuver around large boulder erratics and tall cedars trees that creak and sway in the brisk winter wind. I head down the slope to the creek which gurgles and chortles. Occasionally, the ice cracks and booms like a designer rearranging furniture. 


I’ve been following the icing of Jackson Creek. Huge ice “islands” have formed over boulders, creating new channels for the freezing water to coarse around. I stop near a small tributary of the river to study the formation of ice “pearls” on either side of an ice-formed channel. I venture out onto an ice shelf and set up my small tripod to take slow shots of water magic. 


Breathing hard from my efforts and satisfied with the shots I’d taken, I stand up and step back from shore. It’s then, as I look down to where I’ve placed my feet, that I see it: a small white “rock”—


No! A skull! 


Embedded in the frozen leaf litter and ground, not more than several centimetres from the frozen shore of the river, lies an animal skull with a long snout. It’s the size of my hand. How did I manage not to step on it and crush it with all my tramping there? I must have stepped past it several times to get to my photo op. I bend low to get a better look. What is it doing there? Who—or what—had brought it there, depositing it on the creek shore?


Excited, I return the following day with a ruler to measure it and a trowel and some hot water to help me pull it out of the ground for better examination. A light snow has fallen the night before but the top of the skull is still visible. I remove the snow and the skull comes out of the ground easily, revealing several back teeth still embedded in it. While the skull is mostly intact, the lower jaw is missing and a loose tooth lies on the ground below it. I remove my prize and bring it home. After cleaning it with some bleach, I examine it further and with the help of a naturalist friend, identify it as a red fox (Vulpes vulpes).


The skull measures 133 mm from end of snout to external occipital protuberance (inion). The average skull length of an adult male measures 129 to 167 mm and vixens 128-159 mm. Steve Harris in BBC’s Discover Wildlife tells us that dog foxes also tend to have broader and more domed skulls than vixens; my skull is rather sleek, I think. From this I guess that the skull belongs to an adult female, a vixen. A young vixen; statistics for fox deaths favour a young fox. 

Jake McGown-Lowe of BBC’s The One Show shares that “Fox bones are hard to find.” He had found his specimens at the edge of a wood. He then shares that, “In the countryside the main predator of foxes are farmers and gamekeepers, especially around lambing time, and the gamekeepers usually take the bodies away to dispose of.” Jackson Creek is an urban park, with thirty percent of its perimeter surrounded by urban and suburban streets of Peterborough. But sixty percent of the park is surrounded by agricultural land, sheep and cattle farms, and some marsh. 


What was Vera Vixen’s story? (Somewhere between bringing her home and cleaning her, I decided to name her). How did Vera meet her demise and where was the rest of her? Had the skull recently washed onshore or was it recently brought to the shore by a scavenging racoon, badger, coyote, or another fox? Or had the skull been there longer and the winter ice and water just washed away the litter to reveal the embedded skull? Was it a death of misadventure? Had Vixen drowned when Jackson Creek flooded? Or was she hit by a car at the edge of the park, torn up by scavengers and her skull brought here to eat?

Various hunters have indicated that in a temperate climate it takes several weeks to several years for decomposers (insects, fungi and bacteria) to clean a skull left in the elements of nature. Temperature, humidity, presence of insects and water play key roles in the process of skeletonization. The skull at my feet could have died as recently as the fall of 2020 and as long ago as spring of 2019 during lambing season. Had Vera been shot or poisoned (including indirectly through scavenging) as she hunted for her kits? Bristol University estimated that two thirds of the fox population die each year by predators (including humans), disease and vehicles with the single largest cause of fox mortality being through road collisions. An Oxford study corroborated this with observations that 60% of the fox population were run-over by vehicles. Apparently most of the fox deaths are the young. In their 2004 review of the red fox, David Macdonald and Jonathan Reynolds at Oxford noted that “roughly 75% of the fox population die in their first year.” Studies in Europe have also shown that three to seven-month old foxes are most susceptible to traffic collisions—associated with the cub’s increase in ranging behaviour around the den and their lack of experience and larger tendency for misadventure.

The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is one of Canada’s most widespread mammals. They live an average of 3-7 years and in a wide range of habitats that include forests, grasslands, meadows and farmland. Foxes have adapted well to urban settings and ecotones between city and wilderness; in fact, they prefer mixed vegetation communities such as edge habitats and mixed scrub and woodland. Foxes dig out dens to raise their cubs in scrubwood and among Pine trees and under sheds and buildings in the city.


Foxes are omnivores with a varied diet of small mammals such as voles, mice, squirrels and rabbits, and a variety of plants, berries, other fruit and nuts. They are highly athletic, agile and incredibly fast (they can run up to 48 kph). Foxes have good eyesight but very keen hearing and sense of smell; this along with their ability to move swiftly and quietly through most terrain makes them effective crepuscular (dawn and dusk) predators in open country and nocturnal hunters in areas of concentrated human habitation.

Foxes are known for pouncing on mice and other small rodents; they burrow in the snow using the earth’s magnetic field to help them hunt. Foxes have good visual acuity, capable of seeing small movements from far away and for navigating dense forests as they sprint after prey. Their most useful sense however is their ultrasonic hearing. In a 2014 study by the University of Duisburg-Essen and Czech University of Life Sciences, scientists discovered that “red foxes have the best … hearing sensitivity of any mammal. They can hear a mouse squeak from [30 metres] away.” This along with their ability to move swiftly and quietly through most terrain makes them effective crepuscular (dawn and dusk) predators in open country and nocturnal hunters in areas of concentrated human habitation.

The red fox communicates through a wide range of body language and vocalizations. Foxes use scent glands and urination to communicate their individuality through their skunk-like smell. They use scent to mark territory and show status. The smell increases during mating season. The fox vocal range spans across five octaves with at least 28 different sounds that include those for “contact” and those for “interaction.” Individual voices can be distinguished. One contact sound between two foxes approaching one another resembles the territorial call of a tawny owl. When foxes draw close together, they use a greeting warble similar to the clucking of chickens. Adults greet their kits with gruff huffing sounds.

Foxes are monogamous; they stay with the same mate throughout their life. Foxes live in family units in which both parents take equal part in raising their young. Older siblings also care for the young pups. The young kits remain with their parents at least until the fall of the year they were born in and sometimes longer, especially females. Pups are typically born from February-April. They are born blind, deaf and toothless, with dark brown fluffy fur. Mom fox stays close to guard the kits and nurse them for several weeks and the father or barren vixens feed the mothers. The kits leave the den a month after and are fully weaned by 8-10 weeks. The mother and her kits remain together until the autumn after the birth. After the kits are weaned and begin to play about the den’s entrance, Dad fox helps watch them while Mom fox gets in some hunting. If the mother dies, the father takes over caring for the kits. Kits reach adult form by seven months and some vixens reach sexual maturity by ten months—enabling them to bear their first litter at one year of age.

Red foxes help balance ecosystems by controlling population of prey animals such as rodents and rabbits. They also disperse seeds by eating fruit. Steve Hall of Adirondack Almanack reminds us that red foxes play an important ecological role:

Now and then, vulnerable farm animals such as chickens, ducks and lamb will be taken. While farmers used to routinely trap foxes, many now realize that the fox brings far more benefit in its constant predation on crop-destroying rodents and insects, than the harm they cause in taking the occasional barnyard animal; secure enclosures for hens and [use of] guard dogs to keep the fox in the field but out of the barnyard, are the key to discouraging unwanted fox predation.”

James Fair of BBC Discover Wildlife noted that a single fox during its lifetime may earn the farmer the equivalent of £150-190 through rabbit predation. Most farmers in Wiltshire consider the fox a helpmate in reducing the pest of rabbits. Hall adds that, “Lyme disease starts with rodents… [and the red fox] eats huge quantities of rodents.”


Red foxes feature prominently in the folklore and mythology of human cultures. In Greek mythology, the Teumessian fox or Cadmean vixen, was a gigantic fox that was destined never to be caught. In Japanese mythology, the kitsune are fox-like spirits that possess magical abilities which increase with age and wisdom. This includes the ability to assume human form. In the Cotswolds, witches were thought to take the shape of foxes to steal butter from their neighbours. In later European folklore, Reynard the Fox symbolizes trickery and deceit. In the actual world, this translates to resourcefulness, a quick study, and swift and decisive action. And perhaps that is the true meaning of Vixen.

According to Chris Lüttichau, author of Animal Spirit Guides, fox embodies resourcefulness and daring in her quest to feed herself and her young. “Fox survives and flourishes because she is clever and adaptable; she is now found living in cities. Fox teaches us to be flexible rather than to resist change.”

With thoughts returning to my Vera Vixen, I think that perhaps she is not a young unlucky fox who met with misadventure after all; but a smart old vixen who birthed and nurtured several litters of four to six kits each spring in her den in the pine-cedar forest by Jackson Creek. Her natural death after four to seven years of a rich life in the old growth forest and marsh would have led her to a quiet place to lay herself to rest; there her corpse was ultimately found by a badger, racoon or other fox and parts of her scattered throughout the forest to decompose and feed the ecosystem. Ever the mother, Vera now feeds the forest that nurtured her and her family’s existence.

Thank you, Nina, for such a detailed discussion of your discovery! 

For those interested in more information, Nina has included a bibliography listed below. 

You can also learn more about Nina Munteanu and her book Water Is... on the website https://themeaningofwater.com/ There's more to see in the podcast "The Meaning of Writing and Water" at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IN0j033hAXQ&feature=youtu.be


BBC. 2014. "BBC Two - Winterwatch, Urban Fox Diary: Part 2". 23 January 2014.

BBC. 2014. "Fleet the Sussex fox breaks British walking record". 22 January 2014.

Lüttichau, Chris. 2013. “Animal Spirit Guides.” Cico Books, London, UK. 160pp.

MacDonald, D. and J. Reynolds. 2005. “Red fox (Vulpes vulpes)” IUCN Canid Specialist Group. Online

Malkemper, E. Pascal, Vaclav Topinka, and Hynek Burda. 2015. “A behavioral audiogram of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Hearing Research Vol. 320: 30-37: Online

Monaghan, Patricia. 2004. “The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore”. Infobase Publishing. pp. 199–200. ISBN 978-0-8160-4524-2.

The Nature Conservancy: Nature.org. “Wetlands Mammals: Red Fox.” PDF Online


12 Feb 2021

Schroedinger's Bird ???????

 Quantum Mechanics is weird. In a quantum world of photons and sub-atomic particles, things behave very differently from the world that we can observe and know. It’s extremely difficult to understand that light is both a photon particle and a wave. It’s very hard to believe that a particle doesn’t have a specific property until you measure it. And until then it has all the possible properties you might measure. Famously, Einstein himself didn’t believe this, saying “God doesn’t play dice with the universe”. 


Courtesy: Jadvani_Sharad at Pixabay.com 

Equally famous is the argument that Erwin Schroedinger used to illustrate this apparent impossibility. Schroedinger described a “thought experiment”, where there is a cat and a radioactive atom sealed inside a box. There is also a Geiger counter, which will detect radiation if and when the atom decays. If it detects radiation, it breaks a flask of poison which kills the cat.  The only way to find out if radiation has been detected is to open the box. According to quantum theory, until that is done, the radiation both has and hasn’t occurred, and therefore the cat is both alive and dead until the box is opened.

Diagram of Schrödinger's cat thought experiment. Roughly based on Schroedingerscat3.jpg.
Diagram of Schrödinger's cat thought experiment.
Roughly based on Schroedingerscat3.jpg. Dhatfield-own work. CC Creative Commons.

Einstein, with Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, published another thought experiment (called the EPR paper) which demonstrated another paradox. This thought experiment showed another seemingly ridiculous outcome of quantum mechanics math. It went (more or less) like this:

  • ·         Two particles are set in motion towards each other with the same momentum. They interact with each other briefly at a known position.
  • ·         This relationship between the two particles is called “entanglement”.
  • ·         These particles have a range of momentum and location. Until you measure them, they have all of those with some probability. (Yes, hard to believe, but that's what quantum mechanics math says).
  • ·         When you measure, say, the momentum of one of the two articles it resolves to have only the one measured momentum.
  • ·         But magically, as you do that, the second particle, which may have travelled anywhere in the universe, resolves its momentum to the same value.(How it know to do this, and at the same instant?)

It seemed clear to Einstein that this kind of action-at-a-distance was impossible. He said it therefore followed that quantum mechanics was incomplete. There must be some additional factor that was being overlooked and which could explain this paradox.

Shockingly, experiments in the 1970’s and 80’s showed that entanglement is not impossible, but a real phenomenon. Hard to believe, but true.

And now to birds. No, Schroedinger didn’t really do any thought experiments on birds. Sorry.

Birds are astonishingly good at finding their way over vast distances. Homing pigeons have been used for centuries to carry messages back to their homes from hundreds of kilometers away. Some species of birds migrate thousands of kilometers each season, and find their way back to the nest that used in the previous season.

Some slightly nasty scientists have tested migrating abilities. They captured 30 white-crowned sparrows near Seattle migrating South from Alaska to Southern California. They packed the birds into crates and flew them 2,300 miles to Princeton, New Jersey. When they released them, the adult sparrows set off in a direct course South-West toward Southern California. 


White-crowned Sparrow. Photo: Steve Ryan, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Even hummingbirds, with brains the size of a pea, put human navigation abilities to shame. A researcher described finding a hummingbird hovering opposite the hook where he hung a feeder each year. He was planning to put it out in a few days' time. The hummingbird showed up earlier than expected, and remembered exactly where the feeder was supposed to be. 

Photo: Simon Shapiro

 We don’t know exactly how birds are able to navigate so well. It’s clear that they use multiple strategies, including:

  • ·         Following rivers, mountains or the seashore
  • ·         Using senses of smell and sound, both of which are far more acute than humans’.
  • ·         Navigating using the sun and stars. Like ancient mariners they might be using these to identify their latitude and longitude. 

But the really mysterious ability is that birds are able to sense the earth’s magnetic field. This requires exquisite sensitivity. Scientists have been working for decades to figure out how the mechanism works.

Birds need some light to do it. Not much, because even the dim light of stars at night is enough. But total darkness inhibits the ability.

Enter Entanglement

There is growing consensus that the ability involves crytochrome, a light-sensing protein that exists in birds’ eyes. A photon colliding with crytochrome can disturb electrons in two molecules, creating an entangled radical pair of molecules, each with an odd number of electrons. They return to equilibrium very quickly – about 100 microseconds. During that time, they can flip-flop between two states of electron spins – each molecule changing at exactly the same time, because of the entanglement. The relative time spent in each of the two states can be influenced by the earth’s magnetism. And each state can participate in different chemical reactions, producing different chemicals. These product chemicals – as yet unidentified – could be the mechanism for the bird’s brain to sense magnetism. 

 Scientists are working on harnessing entanglement to build quantum computers. It seems that birds (and evolution) beat us in the race to make practical use of quantum entanglement.