Wildlife Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Encompassing the North Pole and areas of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia, the Arctic ecosystem is a mix of glaciers, tundra, and sea ice — terrain that creates a unique habitat for wildlife. The Arctic is currently under threat from climate change impacts such as melting sea ice and rising ocean temperatures. In order to endure the area’s wintry conditions, wildlife living in the Arctic region have developed certain adaptions. Here are a few ways these species survive in the north:

Arctic Foxes

arctic fox pups
Arctic fox pups. Photo: USFWS
Arctic foxes survive the cold, winter temperatures in the Arctic thanks in part to their thick fur. They have some of the warmest coats of all mammals. Their fur also changes color based on the season. Generally, the foxes have brown fur in the summer and white fur in the winter to help them blend in with their snowy environments.

An interesting fact is that there are also “blue” arctic foxes which do not have the typical white/brown fur colorings. “Blue” arctic foxes instead have light brown or gray-colored coats in winter and black fur with a bluish tint in the summer.

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Harp Seals

Harp seal. Photo: International Fund for Animal Welfare
Harp seals spend much of their time swimming in the North Atlantic Ocean, and therefore must rely on their natural adaptations to stay warm. Their migration route often has them traveling up to 2,000 miles round trip.

Similar to Arctic foxes, harp seals rely on their thick, white coats to endure the winter. The seals also have a layer of blubber which helps protect them from the cold of the water. When they are hunting, they use their strong flippers and sharp teeth to catch quick prey like fish.

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Walrus. Photo by Gary Bembridge via Flickr Creative Commons
Walruses are the largest pinnepeds (“finned foot”) in the Arctic. They’re known for their long tusks and whiskers which help them survive. Walruses use their powerful tusks to help pull themselves out of the freezing water onto land or ice. As they swim, walruses can create “breathing holes” by puncturing the ice from underneath with their tusks.

Additionally, their whiskers, made of 400-700 highly sensitive vibrssae, help them search for prey along the ocean floor, like shellfish, corals, and sea cucumbers.

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Snowy Owls

Snowy owl. Photo by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Sue Ratcliffe
Snowy owl. Photo by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Sue Ratcliffe
Snowy owls live farther north than any other owl in North America. To help keep warm in the cold winters, they depend on the dense coat of feathers covering most of their bodies, including their toes and claws. Although most owls are nocturnal, snowy owls are diurnal, meaning they are active during both the day and night. Since Arctic days can be long, this allows them to hunt during all hours, regardless of daylight.

Keep a look out – if you live in the northern plains, New York, or New England, chances are you’ll see snowy owls in the winter. The birds are “regulars” in this area during this time of year.

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