That’s also when I first began to wonder about the creatures that were living in the water beneath the ice. Occasional spots of clear ice seemed to serve as a window into the underwater world, and I never ignored an opportunity to lie on the ice to see what was there.
I often saw very little, just mud and leaves and floating sediment. But every once in a
while, something else came into view – mostly
aquatic insects, fairy shrimp, tiny fish and, once, a giant snapping turtle.
I’ll never forget lying face-to-face with that snapper, wondering if he was
frightened of me and worrying that he was as cold as I was.
|Cartoon by David Chatowsky|
To this day I still think about that turtle every winter. I had assumed that most turtles bury themselves in the mud and hibernate through the cold months, but apparently not all do. Snapping turtles are particularly cold tolerant and well known for remaining active beneath the ice, though even they reduce their metabolism and move very slowly.
Peter Paton, a reptile and amphibian expert at the University of Rhode Island, said that he has seen wood frogs, spotted turtles, and spotted salamanders swimming under the ice on occasion. It’s more likely to happen, he said, during cycles of melting and refreezing, especially during rainy periods in late winter. That’s when many frogs and salamanders begin to move from the land to the ponds in search of a mate. When temperatures plunge at night and the ponds refreeze, it may lock the animals in, but they seem to survive just fine.
Aquatic creatures that cannot live on land – like fish, fairy shrimp and insect larvae – are locked beneath the ice, too, but they’ve evolved to live through such conditions and thrive. For some, the cold, icy conditions are a necessary trigger for the next stages of their growth and development.
And as any ice fisherman will tell you, there are plenty of fish that remain active beneath the ice. That’s because there is still plenty of food available to sustain them: crustaceans keep creeping along, algae still bloom, plants still photosynthesize when enough light penetrates the ice, and tiny zooplankton continue to swim, feed, and reproduce.
The larval form of dragonflies, stoneflies and mayflies are among a very few aquatic insects that remain active beneath the ice throughout the winter. Some can even live a short time encased in ice, which is especially helpful when shallow ponds freeze all the way to the bottom. And when the ice eventually melts and reaches a certain temperature, the bugs transform into their adult form and fly away.
Which is what I’d like to do about now – fly away south. My ice skates no longer fit, our ponds seldom freeze thick enough to skate on any more, and general silliness on the ice is no longer as attractive as it once was. But I’d relish another opportunity to go face-to-face with a snapping turtle lurking beneath the ice.