Boy, when spring hits in Whistler, it really hits. Anyone trying to ski out on Whistler Mountain this past week would have seen how quickly the brown patches overtook the snow in the race for real estate. But the transition from brown to green often takes a lot longer.
The animal world always seems to rush the spring season, maybe to remind us they were here even before the Telus Ski and Snowboard Festival. The migrating birds we see in early April arrive at a time when, in many years, Whistler’s bottom is still covered in snow. Mammals are active early, too. Squirrels are especially noticeable with their raucous chatter and frenetic activity. Almost three weeks ago, a pair of bears emerged from hibernation near Tower 10 on the Garbanzo chairlift. Given the slim pickings in nature’s cafeteria line, I’d have been tempted to keep sleeping if I were in their paws.
The seemingly overanxious start to the year of these animals must work. They wouldn’t have survived this long otherwise. Obviously they are in synch with the cycles of the seasons – they know that nature’s cooks are busy behind the scenes. Soon the whole valley will be green, and the cafeteria will be full of tasty plants to satisfy even the hungriest diner.
Many plants also benefit from an early start. Their survival strategy is to produce flowers as early as possible so they maximize the chances of being pollinated and spreading their seeds. There are at least a couple of different ways of getting that jump on other plants.
One is to start up the engines before the snow melts. If you’ve ever climbed into a snow cave or igloo, you’ll know lots of light penetrates through the snow. Some plants take advantage of that light and begin photosynthesizing up to half a metre below the snow. By the time the snow melts, these plants can produce flowers almost immediately. Lots of plants in colder climates like Whistler’s use this strategy. Alpine plants are especially good at taking advantage of the light passing through snow. The best known may be western anemone, a plant whose flowering always marks the edge of the receding snow.
Another strategy is to actively melt the snow. The skunk cabbage found in eastern North America (Symplocarpus foetidus) heats itself to temperatures 15 to 35 degrees C warmer than the ambient air. It literally melts itself out of winter. Another reason for the heat is to spread its flowers’ aroma (cleverly resembling the smell of decay) to attract its chosen pollinators. Folklore has it that the same strategy is used by our local skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanum, also in the Arum family), but I couldn’t find any books or articles to confirm it. Once thing’s for sure though – Whistler’s skunk cabbages sure get up from their winter beds early. Whether it’s self-generated heat or impatience that does it is unclear.
From an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense that plants and animals have developed ways to make the most of our short Whistler summer. Like the locals who burst out in shorts and t-shirts at the first hint of spring warmth. We all do what we need to survive.
Wednesday, May 1st – Nature Walk. The first nature walk of the year will visit Fisherman’s Loop at the mouth of the River of Golden Dreams. Meet at the parking area beside the canoe takeout at Nicklaus North at 6:30 p.m. Free for members; $2 for non-members.
Saturday, May 4th – Monthly Bird Walk. Meet at the base of Lorimer Road at 7:00 a.m.
Saturday, May 11th – Arbor Day. Join the Whistler Naturalists as we help reforest the Emerald Forest.
Written by: Bob Brett