Kangaroos are said to be able to raise or lower their body temperature in response to cold or hot weather. (Staff Photo: Jim West)
ALBANY — When we think about the Deep South, super cold winters don’t often come to mind.
Forecasts in the Good Life City, though, are for temperatures to drop to 15 degrees before dawn Tuesday, launching a pair of the coldest nights seen in a while. The region could see record lows, considering that the record for Albany on Saturday, set back in 1919, was 16 degrees.
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Most of us can cope with the bone-chilling cold by dropping another log on the fire or turning up a thermostat for our comfort, but what happens to the animals at the Chehaw Wild Animal Habitat — especially those who hail from tropical climes?
They’ll be just fine, says Ben Roberts, manager of animal programs at Chehaw, one way or another.
Snakes and lizards won’t even know the difference, considering all the small cold-blooded critters are locked up in a climate-controlled environment, Roberts said. Alligators are another matter, though, with the largest of the big boys coming in around 13 feet. Mostly, the toothy reptiles prefer to alternate between soaking up available sun and simply lying in the muck as motionless as they can.
“Alligators are exceptionally good at maintaining body temperatures,” Roberts said, “Even in the winter, their ability to take sunlight and turn it into heat is really, really good.”
Plus, according to Roberts, gators can actually “shunt” their blood from the bulk of their bodies to circulate strictly from their hearts to their lungs and brains and back again, while lying on the bottom of a pond for up to two days at a time.
“In the cold, they don’t need that much oxygen,” Roberts said.
On Saturday, even the furry, warm-blooded animals weren’t exactly working up a sweat. In fact, judging from their relaxed, almost sluggish attitudes, it might well have been August. Roberts explained that during periods of high temperatures, the critters are less active in order to relieve the heat. In cold weather, they display the same behavior to “build” their heat.
Cheetahs and red wolves do just fine with no real assistance from the park, Roberts said. While the big African cats do have a sort of “house” for shelter from the wind and rain, nothing is provided for heat.
Black rhinos, on the other hand, have “issues with stress,” Roberts said, and tend to break out in ulcers around their noses and mouths when the temperature drops below 45 degrees or so. To keep them warm, Chehaw provides a special barn with large radiant heaters mounted eight feet high. Often the doors to the toasty environment are left open for the rhinos to wander in and out and thereby “thermo-regulate” themselves, Roberts said.
Despite their tropical origins, parrots are a hardy breed, with little assistance needed — even in freezing weather.
“It’s funny, though,” Roberts said. “When I worked in Nebraska, 50 degrees was the mark where everything came inside — even the parrots. Down south, the parrots never come inside. They’ll take temperatures below freezing all the time, as long as there’s a wind break.”
Kangaroos are almost a category to themselves, Roberts said, going so far as to label them “bizarre,” for their uncanny ability to regulate their body temperature. The big marsupials are native to Australia where, according to Roberts, temperatures can reach 140 degrees during the day then drop to just 14 at night. Kangaroos survive that incredible range in part by varying their internal body temperature by as much as 20 degrees.
“Of all the animals we have out here, from a biological perspective, (kangaroos) are probably my favorite,” Roberts said. To me, the only thing that makes them mammals is that they have fur.”
So, turn your electric blanket up a notch and don’t worry about the critters. They’ve made it through the summers and winters of countless generations and they plan to be around for your next picnic at Chehaw.