Winter Vocabulary Lesson: Subnivean

The following exchange happened on Twitter this morning:

I love words, and “subnivean” ranks up there ranks up there among my favorite winter-related vocabulary, despite the fact that as I type this my computer is giving it a squiggly red underline to insist that it isn’t a real word. (You’re wrong, computer. It is.) It simply means “under the snow,” in the same way that subterranean means “under the earth.” The reason it’s significant to winter ecology is that many small mammals excavate subnivean tunnels to move about more easily, hide from predators, insulate themselves, etc. I posted some photos of subnivean tunnels created by mice or voles last fall, although I didn’t use the word at the time.

I tried to take video of the squirrel that was entertaining me so much this morning, but it wouldn’t cooperate, so all I have to offer is a photo of some of the tunnel entrances themselves. I suspect that if I excavated one of these tunnels I’d find it full of sunflower seeds from the nearby feeders.

The mouse is a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice may build subways from stack to stack: supply, demand, and transport all neatly organized. To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear.

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac