Cornelius' Corner:

"Zugunruhe!"
10
Mar

Cornelius’ Corner: “Zugunruhe!”

A gray snake rests his head on a small log in a tank, looking directly at the camera.

Cornelius can’t wait for spring!

Greetings, friends!

I don’t know about you, but I am soooo ready for spring to finally get here all the way! I have been super restless, and I can’t seem to decide which log or branch would be comfiest. To help distract me, my coworkers even gave me a new tunnel to play with. It helps a little bit, but I’m still very hyperactive.

The tail of a gray snake sticks out of a log hide in a tank.

He just can’t get comfy!

I’m not the only one feeling restless in the Visitor Center, either – my neighbor Tommy the Toad keeps dragging substrate into his water bowl and then smearing mud all over the tank walls, and Spot the Box Turtle has been throwing his veggies everywhere.

I was worried that everybody would be upset after the fourth day in a row of having to clean up muddy footprints and reset branches, rocks, and logs that had been tossed around, but my coworker Jessica told me that it’s ok to feel like restless at this time of the year. We’re not just being messy, we’re responding to the changing amounts of daylight outside!

A mottled brown toad sitting in a blue-green plastic water dish full of muddy substrate.

Tommy the Toad, making a mess of his water bowl.

There’s even a fun term to describe the feeling – ZUGUNRUHE! This word is German and basically means “migratory restlessness.” ZUG means movement or migration, while UNRUHE means anxiety or restlessness. This phenomenon is best documented in birds but can be seen in other types of animals that migrate like fish and insects.

Zugunruhe was first documented by bird fanciers in the 1800s, who noticed that their birds were active all night when they should have been resting instead. Then, in the 1960s, scientists formally measured the behavior with lab experiments. They placed birds in cages overnight with ink pads on the floor. As the birds moved around, they made inky tracks and wing marks that showed where they had been. It turns out that right before migration, the birds in the study hopped and flapped a lot more at night than they would during other parts of the year.

The head of a gray snake poking out of a cardboard tube that is buried in brown wood chips.

Not even a fun tunnel can satisfy this restlessness.

Further research has shown that the behavior is linked to changes in the amount of daylight, and that it may involve the hormone ghrelin. This is the same hormone that tells humans when to stop eating. Ghrelin may play a role in encouraging birds to eat more food, allowing them to store up energy for upcoming long distance movements.

Overall, the study of behaviors or other natural phenomenon tied to seasonal changes is called phenology. This is how we know when to expect the first cherry blossoms to bloom or when to start listening for wood frogs calling in the wetlands.

What seasonal signs have you spotted in the park lately? Stop by my tank – I would love to hear about them!

Your friendly neighborhood corn snake,

– Cornelius

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