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Wildlife skipping winter slumbers
Warm temperatures hamper hibernation
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Gen. Beauregard Lee waddled outside his "Weathering Heights" mansion Thursday to a sunny, warm, springlike day. The only problem was it's not spring and it won't officially be for nearly two months.

The South's iconic groundhog again failed to see his shadow on the Georgia dirt clay, which could bode well for those looking forward to warm days on Lake Lanier.

When the beloved groundhog fails to see his shadow, an early spring is expected.

But the unnaturally warm temperatures in Northeast Georgia are playing games of sorts on animals accustomed to snuggling up in their burrows for the winter.

While Northeast Georgia is home to some animals that go into a full hibernation, many go into a lighter state known as torpor. During torpor a variety of animals will go into a short-term hibernation and experience lowered body temperature, heart rate and breathing.

"With the warmer temperatures, of course, their body is responding to that and they will come out, but there still is not as much food as they need," said Jennifer Mook, professor of biology at Gainesville State College.

Some animals that experience some form of hibernation in Northeast Georgia include bears, raccoons, skunks and several rodents.

When animals struggle to find food they experience stress, which can have a detrimental effect on the functioning of their immune system, similar to humans, Mook said. Because of a weaker immune system, they could be more susceptible to diseases including rabies.

There already have been two rabies cases in Hall County in 2012, and officials are concerned if warm temperatures continue through the winter the county could have an influx of cases for the year.

"If (animals are) having to actively forage for food to maintain their metabolism then they might be ... more active than they would be in the summer because they're having to go further to look for food," Mook said.

With food scarce, some animals could ultimately starve.

Some species could adapt to the changes more than others, Mook said.

"There just really are not the food resources out here for these animals," Mook said. "Without food they will burn off any fat they have and starvation does become an issue."

 

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