Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Freezing the Winter Away

The clutches of the Polar Vortex are finally releasing its grasp on us and we can be thankful for our home heating, our layers of warm clothing, and most of all, our bodies’ abilities to generate heat. But it is times like these that make me wonder about our friends that live outside year-round… especially those that don’t generate most of their own body heat. How do they survive these periods of intense cold? There are several species of North American frogs that have an unusual trick up their sleeve: They freeze nearly solid and still live to see the next spring.

This picture of a wood frog is by Ontley at Wikimedia Commons.
Frogs are ectothermic, meaning they take on the temperature of their surroundings rather than generate their own body heat. This introduces some intriguing questions about how these species even exist in northern climates that experience freezing temperatures every year. When various North American frog species (including wood frogs, spring peepers, western chorus frogs, and a few gray tree frog species) take on freezing winter temperatures, they actually allow their bodies to freeze nearly solid. For most species, this would be a deadly approach: a frozen circulatory system would halt the delivery of oxygen to cells, which require oxygen to generate the energy they need to do just about everything a cell does. Furthermore, jagged ice crystal edges could rupture the cells they are inside. Dead cells lead to dead organs, which in turn lead to dead animals. These freezing frogs have found the secrets to freezing without killing their cells.

The first secret of the freezing frogs is to spend the winter snuggled in the leaf litter below the snow. This environment insulates and protects the frogs from the deadly wind chills we have been facing for the last several days.

The second secret of the freezing frogs is a creative use of colligative properties. Colligative properties are properties of solutions that depend on the ratio of the number of liquid molecules to the number of molecules of stuff dissolved in that liquid. One of those properties is called freezing point depression: The temperature at which a liquid will freeze can be lowered by adding particles to it. (This is why salt is spread on roads in the winter). A critical component of the freezing frog strategy is for the liver to produce massive amounts of glucose in response to the start of freezing. This glucose is pumped throughout the body, which lowers the freezing point of all of the organs.

A third secret of the freezing frogs is the use of ice nucleating agents: proteins that actually encourage freezing. This may seem counterintuitive, but remember that ice crystals inside cells can cause them physical damage. By having a high concentration of ice nucleating agents in the fluid between the cells, this ensures that ice first forms in the spaces surrounding the cells. When ice forms, the ice crystals are made of only water molecules, which draws water out of the solution and leaves behind a higher concentration of other stuff (like glucose) in between the cells. The high concentration of glucose between the cells draws water out of the cells and into that space. This additional water also freezes. In the end, the cells are chock-full of particles, lowering their freezing temperature, and are surrounded by ice, which insulates the cells. Thus, this process of ice formation around the cells prevents ice from forming inside the cells.

A fourth secret of the freezing frogs is a metabolic shift. Most animal cells rely on oxygen to produce the energy they need to support their demands. But cells have ways of producing energy without oxygen too. These ways are not very efficient, but are useful when there is not enough oxygen available to meet demand (such as when a seal dives or a cheetah reaches burst speed). When freezing frogs start to freeze and oxygen delivery to the cells slows and eventually stops, their cells shift from an oxygen-reliant system of energy creation to an oxygen-independent system of energy creation. Additionally, freezing organs do less and don’t require as much energy anyway, so they can continue functioning at low levels for a long time if the freezing spell is prolonged.

When the environment warms up (as forecasters promise will happen), the body temperatures of these frogs raise and body fluids slowly become liquid again. The heart starts to beat again within hours of the start of thawing and oxygen can again be delivered around the body. The delivery of oxygen-carrying blood helps the rest of the organs return to their normal functions.

There are still many secrets of these freezing frogs left to uncover. Maybe you’ll be the one to do it… once we thaw out a bit.

Want to know more? Check these out:

1. Storey, K.B. (2004). Strategies for exploration of freeze responsive gene expression: advances in vertebrate freeze tolerance Cryobiology, 48, 134-145 DOI: 10.1016/j.cryobiol.2003.10.008

2. Layne, J.R., & Lee, R.E. (1995). Adaptations of frogs to survive freezing Climate Research, 5, 53-59 DOI: 10.3354/cr005053


  1. Fascinating, particularly the part about metabolic shift.

  2. Great read! Although these frogs have these mechanisms, do you know how many frogs are likely to survive the winter months at these low temperatures?

  3. beautifully explained the metabolic shift of freezed and almost dead frog of hibernation toactive spring frog. really informative

  4. Thanks guys! As for the frogs that are likely to have survived this last polar vortex... we will see. Many frogs in the Midwest of the United States have these mechanisms, but not all frogs are equal: Differences in the specific location where they have burrowed themselves, how much glucose they were able to produce as a result of their diet over the summer and fall, and species differences with regard to the metabolic shift are all likely to play roles in which frogs make it to spring and which ones don't.