While traveling in Alaska recently, I had the opportunity to visit Denali National Park and Preserve. Its landscape, which includes Mt. McKinley – the highest mountain in North America – and its diverse wildlife were nothing short of impressive. However, it was the tiny wood frog – the park’s only amphibian – that peaked my curiosity when I learned how it survives the region’s subarctic winters.
Situated at roughly 63°N latitude, winters in Denali are long and extremely cold. From October to March, temperatures can range from 20°F to as low as -40°F. These cold conditions drive many creatures to hibernate in dens or migrate south. The wood frog, however, makes it through winter by burrowing into leaf litter and literally freezing solid until spring.
According to wildlife biologists, a wood frog responds to falling temperatures by converting glycogen in its liver into glucose (sugar) and pumping it throughout its body. Acting like a natural anti-freeze, the glucose lowers the freezing point of water inside the frog and protects its tissues and organs. As temperatures continue to drop, however, the frog does eventually freeze.
Throughout the winter, the frog is essentially lifeless. Its heart stops beating and it does not breathe. Yet, as temperatures rise in spring, the frog thaws and comes back to life. While scientists are not exactly sure how this amazing resurrection works, they have noted that the wood frog’s heart and liver freeze last and thaw first.
Although the wood frog can be found across North America, the Alaskan wood frog is known to endure colder temperatures and freeze for longer periods of time than its southern cousins. It is also the only frog found north of the Arctic Circle.
Image Credit: NPS