Can you imagine living outside in extreme cold conditions without the necessary precautions? But animals living in frigid environments of the Arctic and Antarctic regions have unique adaptations to survive during the harsh winters.
Explore the top 10 animals that thrive in bone-chilling cold conditions and how they have adapted to survive in these unforgiving climates.
Emperor penguins are native to Antarctica and raise their young on fast ice, a floating platform of frozen ocean that connects to ice shelves. These penguins can withstand extremely low temperatures due to physical and behavioral adaptations. Four layers of overlapping feathers provide excellent protection from wind, and thick fat layers block heat inside the body.
Additionally, these penguins have evolved a small beak, flippers, and feet compared to their main body to prevent excessive heat loss. Emperor penguins also have specially arranged arteries and veins to maintain their body warm. During the four-month egg incubation period, males gather in “huddles” to minimize their body surface exposure to cold air.
Muskox are grazing animals that live their entire lives in the Arctic Tundra. They are more closely related to sheep and goats than to oxen. To survive in one of the harshest environments in the Arctic, they have developed several anatomical, behavioral, and physiological adaptations. During the colder months, they move to higher hillsides to avoid deep snow.
In winter, their hooves help them dig through ice and snow to reach food in the valleys. A long, thick outer coat directly protects against extremely cold weather, and a shorter inner coat provides extra insulation. Their large size also makes it easier to maintain their body temperature in frozen environments.
Although commonly known as a leopard, the snow leopard is more closely related to the tiger. These big cats prefer living in high-altitude mountainous terrain at 3,000-4,500m elevations and steep, broken landscapes such as rocky outcrops, cliffs, and ravines. Their short forelimbs and long hind legs allow them to move quickly in rugged terrain, and their long, spotted white-greyish fur keeps them well insulated in cold weather.
With tails reaching 105 cm in length, snow leopards use them to balance and wrap around their bodies for warmth. Their wide paws are covered in fur and act as natural “snowshoes,” distributing their weight over soft snow and protecting them from the cold.
Reindeer are native to frigid regions like Alaska and Scandinavia. Their antlers, made of dead tissue, help them withstand extreme cold. Reindeer have eyes susceptible to ultraviolet light, which enhances their vision in the dark Arctic winters. They have a furry nose that acts as an internal heat-exchange system, warming each breath on its way in.
Two layers of fur provide insulation: an ultra-fine and dense underfur and a shaggy outer layer. The tendons in their foot joints that make a clicking sound help herds keep together in low visibility. Also, reindeer burrow through the snow with their hooves using a cratering technique to retrieve hidden food.
Belugas are white whales found globally in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters. Their musical vocalizations give them the nickname “canaries of the sea.” A thick layer of blubber that makeup to 40 percent of their weight helps them stay warm in freezing waters and store energy. The large, round, and flexible bump on their head, called a “melon,” helps them modulate their vocalizations.
Belugas use echolocation to navigate the waters beneath ice sheets, and their small pectoral fins and tail flukes reduce the surface area and heat loss through these thin body parts. Unlike other whales, belugas have a tough dorsal ridge that allows them to swim easily under ice sheets.
The Arctic Hare lives in the Arctic Tundra up to 900m altitude. It survives harsh conditions with its short limbs, ears, and nose, thick coat, and body fat that insulate from cold climates. Padded paws provide grip on slippery surfaces, insulate from snow and ice, and help them spread their weight. Arctic hares can dig holes beneath the snow to escape the cold wind.
They are loners but can travel in a group to keep watch for predators and huddle together to stay warm. Additionally, Arctic hares use their keen sense of smell to locate food hidden beneath the snow and know exactly where to dig.
The snowy owl is a magnificent bird that inhabits the vast Arctic Tundra. Its distinct round body shape covered in thick white feathers with dark markings insulate the owl from the harsh cold environment. Unlike most birds with bare legs, the snowy owl has feathers covering its legs and feet further helps to keep it warm, and its expanded foot surface prevents the owl from sinking into the snow.
Interestingly, the snowy owl is one of the heaviest species, weighing approximately 1.8 kilos, largely due to its dense coat of feathers. Snowy owls primarily hunt by waiting on the ground for prey rather than flying around searching for it.
Walruses, also known as gentle giants of the Arctic, are semiaquatic marine mammals with fin-like feet. They adapt to living in frigid environments without compromising their core body temperature. Walruses spend most of their time in the water, losing body heat 27 times faster than on land. A thick blubber layer under their skin keeps them warm and functions as an energy reserve.
In winter, their blood vessels constrict and move blood away from the skin and toward the chief organs, reducing heat loss to the environment. Due to their gregarious nature, walruses seek physical contact with each other to retain body heat without losing it to the external environment.
The Arctic fox, a native to the Arctic Tundra, has adaptations to survive in its harsh environment. Its physical features, including a round and compact body, short muzzle, ears, and legs, help conserve heat and energy. The fox’s deep and thick fur provides insulation and helps maintain a consistent body temperature.
Interestingly, this fur changes color to white during winter, serving as a defense mechanism against predators in snowy surroundings. The fox also has thick fur on its paws, allowing it to easily walk on snow and ice. In winter, the fox reduces its metabolic rate and locomotor activities to conserve fat to survive the long and harsh winter.
Polar bears living in the Arctic Circle have superb adaptations to withstand extreme cold. They have a thick layer of blubber, two layers of fur, compact ears, and a small tail, to keep them warm in temperatures as low as -50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Their flat paws act as snowshoes and swimming paddles. They have excellent hearing, a keen sense of smell, and acute eyesight, which help them trace their prey even in the winter darkness. They use the ice as a platform to track and prey upon seals. When food is short, they can slow their metabolism for survival.