Arctic Animals & their Unique Adaptations

Arctic animals & their adaptations

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In some regions of the Arctic, such as Central Siberia, it can get as cold as -65ºF (-54ºC). Any life that exists in these extreme conditions needs to be specially adapted in order to survive.

You’d think that there wouldn’t be a lot of life in this cold desert, but the Arctic is home to some pretty special creatures.

Where is the Arctic?

Where is the arctic?

The Arctic is an area in the Northern hemisphere located 66.5º north of the equator. Being so far away from the equator, it’ll come as no surprise that things can get a little chilly and extreme here.

There is an imaginary line known as the Arctic Circle, which goes around the northernmost part of the planet. Anything above this line is considered to be within the Arctic. Within this region, there is one of the world’s biggest oceans, the Arctic Ocean which covers more than 14.6 million square miles (37.8 million square kilometers)! There are also eight countries within the Arctic which include part of the USA, Canada, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and some parts of Russia.

Location of the arctic circle

What’s really interesting about this part of the planet is how it experiences day and night. Where most of us are used to the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening, things are a little different when you move further north.

For example, during the winter, the sun never rises and the Arctic remains in complete darkness from the end of October through to dawn at the beginning of March. The darkest time here falls on the winter solstice on December 21st. On the flip side, once summer comes around, the Arctic experiences what is known as the midnight sun where there is no darkness at all. It’s only after the summer solstice that the sun starts to sink in the sky but unless it’s cloudy, it’s perfectly bright.

Amazingly, even during summer, the temperature here doesn’t usually rise above 54ºF (12ºC). In winter, it can get as cold as -65ºF (-54ºC), so you’d better wrap up warm. Although the coldest recorded temperature happened in Greenland when the mercury dropped to -70ºF (-57ºC); now that’s cold! But surprisingly, there are still people that inhabit the area; four million of them to be exact!

Despite often being covered in snow, there isn’t a lot of precipitation in the Arctic. In an average year, only around 10 inches (250 ml) of rain might fall and this means that the area is classified as a desert.

Arctic Tundra

When you hear about the Arctic, you’ll often hear the term Arctic tundra, but what exactly is this referring to? By definition, the arctic tundra is an area where there is very little rainfall, with extremely low temperatures for most of the year and a lack of vegetation. It is the coldest of all the biomes, and the subsoil of the Arctic tundra is permanently frozen, and you’ll find no trees here. In fact, this is where it gets its name because tundra comes from the Finnish word tunturi which translates to mean treeless plain.

What is the tundra biome

The main nutrients in the ground within the Arctic tundra are phosphorus and nitrogen. These are important for arctic plants to grow, and while there is a lack of the diversity we see in other regions of the earth, there are still around 1700 species of plant that grow here, all of which are very hardy and have shallow root systems.

The unique ecosystem here means that any animals need to be adapted to survive. However, there is a lot of life upon the Arctic tundra, including things like polar bears, lemmings, foxes and even a range of insects such as mosquitoes and the Arctic bumble bee!

What is an Animal Adaptation?

What is an animal adaptation?

Animal adaptations are physical or behavioral characteristics that are unique to their survival in certain conditions. This might be in relation to feeding, mating, finding water and shelter, or generally surviving. These adaptations ensure that the animal is able to cope better under specific conditions. There are three main types of animal adaptations.

Structural Adaptations

Structural adaptations refer to any changes to the body of an animal over the course of time to better help it survive. The camouflage ability of the chameleon is an excellent example of this. It may also refer to changes in the size of the animal’s body or its organs as well as changes to the shape of certain body parts.

In the Arctic, the polar bear has large furry feet with sharp claws that allow them to move more efficiently over the ice.

Physiological Adaptations

When changes to the metabolism of an organism occur, this is known as a physiological adaptation. The best example of this is hibernation which some animals do to survive difficult conditions. During this time, their metabolic rate slows down so much in a reaction to the conditions that they are able to go into a state of dormancy and survive without eating or drinking. Sometimes for months at a time.

Behavioral Adaptations

Behavioral adaptations are changes to the way an animal behaves or acts to better survive in its environment.

When we look at Arctic animals, a prime example of this is the gray whale. The animal will move to warmer waters to breed before heading back to the colder temperatures of the Arctic Ocean.

How Do Arctic Animals Survive the Extreme Cold?

Not just any animal could survive the extremes of the Arctic, but a lot of creatures have special adaptations that allow them to thrive in these demanding conditions.

1. Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)

Polar bears are the biggest bears on the planet and they are endemic to the Arctic region. But interestingly, it’s been shown that these giant bears are actually relatives of the grizzly bear which began moving north many thousands of years ago. Since then, they have adapted to the harsh conditions.

Polar bears have several adaptations to survive in the Arctic climate including a layer of blubber that helps keep them warm; as much as 50% of the bear’s weight could be fat! Additionally, they have super thick fur that provides insulation and while they might look white, they’re actually black-skinned and their fur reflects the light, giving them their snowy appearance. What’s more, polar bears have adopted some interesting behavior to keep warm. They know that when their fur is matted and wet, it’ll keep them warm so they can often be seen rolling around in the snow! How cute!

What’s super interesting is that the fur, while keeping the animal warm, it doesn’t actually heat up. So, if you were trying to view a polar bear through an infrared device, you wouldn’t be able to see it.

These massive predatory animals have paws with an extremely large surface area as well as sharp claws so they’re more easily able to move over the ice with good grip. A single bear can cover more than 230,000 square miles (600,000 square kilometers) in search of food because, let’s face it, meals can be pretty sparse in the Arctic. Their front paws are even webbed so they can swim in search of their next meal. While polar bears are more commonly found in Canada, Alaska, and Russia, there are some that populate the Scandinavian areas of the Arctic.

2. Arctic Fox (Vulpes lagopus)

When you think of an Arctic fox, you probably think of a white canine. But these animals are only white during winter when their fur changes from a brownish/gray color with black markings. This adaptation helps to keep them camouflaged in the snow. Their colored coat comes in handy in the summer as it helps them to blend into the vegetation.

On top of this, Arctic foxes have much thicker fur than other, similar animals, which aids them in staying warm in the super cold temperatures of the Arctic. Their tails are especially furry, and they can be seen wrapping them around themselves when it’s very cold. You’ll also notice that their ears, legs, and feet are smaller than other types of foxes, and this is to avoid losing as much body heat.

Arctic foxes mainly prey on lemmings, and their advanced sense of hearing allows them to locate their prey much more easily. On very cold days, the fox uses its sharp claws to burrow down into the ground and stay out of the blizzard.

The Arctic fox can be found on the tundra and prefers rocky, coastal areas. They’re very common along the Alaskan and Canadian coasts as well as across Russia, Iceland and Norway.

3. Arctic Hare (Lepus arcticus)

Similar to the Arctic fox, Arctic hares have super thick fur which is used to keep them warm in harsh conditions. Most commonly, these animals are found in the North American parts of the Arctic across the tundra landscape.

They also have smaller limbs and ears than other types of hare and this is to ensure that they don’t lose a lot of body heat. But since they can run at up to 40 mph (64 kmh), you’d imagine this would keep them warm as well!

The Arctic hare has also adopted the same camouflage technique as the Arctic fox. During the summer, its brownish coat helps it blend into the surroundings, while in the winter, it turns a beautiful white color, concealing the animal within the snow.

Like many Arctic animals, the hare has additional layers of fat, and as much as 20% of its body weight can be fat. But this helps to keep out the cold while the animal goes in search of plants, berries, and other herbivorous foods.

4. Musk Ox (Ovibos moschatus)

The musk ox has wide hoofs which enable it to walk over waterlogged ground for extended periods of time without getting cold. Additionally, these large bovine animals have two layers of thick fur which is a brilliant way to keep warm even in very cold conditions. The fur is so effective, that it’s even a prized clothing material for humans; whether that’s ethical or not is up for debate.

Their coats are so big that they make the musk ox look far bigger than it is. The outer layer of fur keeps the animal dry when precipitation occurs and stops things like insects in their tracks.

Musk oxen are most commonly found in Canada and Alaska, but they are also located in many parts of Greenland. They spend their days roaming around the tundra looking for grasses, roots, and moss. When the ground is covered in snow in the winter, they use those wide hoofs to dig down to access their food.

While they might look placid at first glance, the musk ox can be very aggressive, especially during mating season. The males will choose a mate and will defend her to the bitter end, fighting off anyone who dares to try and mate with her and even getting the rest of the herd involved!

5. Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)

Reindeer, also known as caribou, are not only Santa’s helpers but they’re super survivalists when it comes to the cold. These animals are a species of deer that are found exclusively in the Arctic. They live all over the region in countries like Canada, Alaska, Russia, Finland, and Greenland.

Those antlers aren’t just for decoration, reindeer have adapted them to help them dig through dense snow when navigating the environment. They also have thick coats that keep them warm during the winter, but this sheds in summer, so they don’t get too hot. What’s more, in the summer, herds of thousands of reindeer will migrate as far as 3100 miles (5000 km) in search of food; now that’s determination!

Speaking of food, the main diet of the reindeer is lichen which it spots using its ultraviolet vision. It also uses this adaptation to spot predators and if they really need to get away, they can swim since their coat traps air enabling them to float!

What’s really interesting about reindeer is that they have a chamber in the nose that warms the air they breathe in. If you’ve ever taken a sharp breath in through the nose when it’s cold outside, you’ll know why this is so important!

6. Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)

You’ll sometimes hear the snowy owl being called the Arctic owl, and they’re found all over the region, mainly on the tundra. When the owls are born, their feathers are brown, but as they mature, they turn mainly white; they’re the only owls that have all white plumage.

Just like other types of owls, the Snowy owl has excellent senses, including sight and hearing which enables them to be incredible hunters. They mainly prey on lemmings and have long, sharp talons with which to catch them.

The snowy owl has very thick feathers which help to keep it warm, and unlike many owl species, it’s capable of hunting during the day. That comes in very handy for those long summer days when darkness never comes.

7. Harp Seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus)

There are six types of seal that live in the Arctic, including the hooded seal, the ribbon seal, the bearded seal, ringed seals, spotted seals, and the super cute harp seal. They’re not huge animals and typically don’t grow much longer than 6.5 feet (2 meters), weighing no more than 300 lbs (135 kg).

The harp seal can often be found swimming around the Arctic Ocean in search of food or resting on the ice. While the seals, sometimes called the Greenland seal, live in the country of the same name, they’re also common in North America where their spread goes down to the North Atlantic Ocean.

Harp seals have a layer of blubber that helps to keep them nice and toasty. However, this may not be enough at times, so when the seal is at rest on the ice, it will flip its fore flippers against its body and keep its back flippers together therefore reducing how much of its body is in contact with the ground and conserving heat.

These animals are incredibly social and are often found in large groups. They are brilliant hunters that mainly eat fish and can stay underwater for more than 20 minutes at a time!

8. Arctic Wolf (Canis lupus arctos)

Compared to other types of wolves, the Arctic wolf has much smaller ears as this helps to reduce heat loss. Additionally, these animals have thick fur that also grows between their toes so that walking on cold ground is possible.

Like many other Arctic animals, the Arctic wolf is white in color as this allows it to blend into the snowy surroundings. However, unlike other mammals here, its fur does not change color through the seasons.

But their layered fur does come in handy in the rain and snow since the coarse outer layer acts almost like a raincoat. Due to its special adaptations, the Arctic wolf is able to survive even when the temperature drops below -70ºF (-57ºC)!

If you’re a dog lover, then you might be surprised to learn that Arctic wolves and domestic doggies are one of the same; they’re both descendants of the gray wolf. Although, I wouldn’t recommend going to pet one of these wild canines as they can be quite territorial.

9. Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus)

The Arctic is not only home to terrestrial animals but avian creatures too. One of these is the rock ptarmigan which is amazing in that it will nest as far north as possible; not something that many other birds will do.

Rock ptarmigans are white in color with bright red ‘eyebrows’ which are predominantly seen in the males and act as a way of attracting a female. They prefer to live in rocky, dry areas of the Arctic tundra and tend to stay away from human settlements. You’ll find rock ptarmigans across the North American parts of the Arctic.

In the summer, the rock ptarmigan looks a lot different as its feathers change to a brownish color. Much like other Arctic critters, it’ll only turn white to camouflage in the winter months. Females, with their brown summer plumage are such masters of disguise that even from a few feet away, you’d struggle to see them nesting.

A member of the pheasant family, the rock ptarmigan pecks the ground for seeds and vegetation. It’s a smart little bird as it’ll follow other animals like the musk ox during winter in order to find food more easily.

10. Lemmings

Norway Lemming (Lemmus lemmus)

The lemming is a small rodent that’s super cute and lives in the Arctic on the tundra. They prefer flat lands and meadows and can be found throughout North America, Scandinavia, and Siberia. They feed on grass and mosses and can often be found foraging. Lemmings only grow to around 5 – 7 inches (13 – 18 cm) in length, depending on the species, so it’s one of the smaller animals on this list!

Lemmings do not hibernate during winter but instead build large, complex tunnel systems under the ground where they can stay safe and warm. They’ll spend time burrowing under the snow in search of food and remain active all year round.

There are 20 species of lemmings belonging to 6 genera. These include collared lemmings (genus Dicrostonyx), true lemmings (genus Lemmus), wood lemming (genus Myopus), bog lemmings (genus Synaptomys), yellow steppe lemmings (genus Eolagurus), and steppe lemming (genus Lagurus). While the brown lemming remains the same color all year round, collared lemmings will change to white during winter to blend in better with the snow.

Lemmings are a primary food source for a lot of other Arctic animals, so it’s a good job that they reproduce so quickly. A single female can give birth to as many as eight babies every five weeks!

11. Arctic Ground Squirrel (Urocitellus parryii)

One of the ways that many animals handle cold temperatures and sparse food is by hibernating. But the Arctic ground squirrel takes things to a new level and spends as long as eight months in hibernation each year; that’s longer than any other animal on the planet!

Amazingly, when these little animals go into hibernation, their heart rate drops, and their body temperature goes close to freezing. But they’re able to push through as they carefully line their dens with hair, grass, and other organic material before hibernating.

When they wake up in summer, the squirrels are ready to start eating again and will have stored plenty of food in their den.

Arctic ground squirrels are found across Russia and in the North American parts of the Arctic.

12. Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica)

There is only one amphibian found in the Arctic and that’s the wood frog. In order to survive the freezing temperatures of winter, the frog will actually stop breathing and its heart will stop! It is also able to produce an antifreeze-like substance which stops it from freezing when it goes into this dormant state. However, the space between the frog’s cells will freeze and it still manages to survive! The frog will literally defrost in spring when it’s time to mate!

While wood frogs are found in the North America Arctic, they’re also found in some lower parts of the United States. However, any other type of frog found in these regions would surely die when exposed to such cold temperatures.

13. Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas)

The beluga whale is sometimes called the white whale and can be found across the Arctic Ocean as well as connecting seas. However, these animals are also often spotted in Arctic inland rivers.

One of the ways that these animals have adapted to the cold climates of the Arctic is to breed during the late fall. When it’s time to give birth, the females have been able to migrate to warmer waters which are far more hospitable for the calves.

There are thought to be around 200,000 beluga whales in the wild, and they can grow up to 23 feet (7 meters) although the males can be up to 25% larger than the females.

They’re very vocal animals whose head melon helps with echolocation. Moreover, they are the only whale species that can independently move their head which often makes them seem more human. One of the ways that they use their superior communication skills in the Arctic is to tell other belugas where there are air pockets in the ice.

Since swimming under the ice comes with its own set of challenges, the beluga whale doesn’t have a dorsal fin. Instead it has an elongated hard dorsal ridge which prevents the whale from getting caught on the ice above it.

These whales often fall prey to animals such as the killer whale or the polar bear. However, they have adapted to live in large groups, which lessens the chances of being caught by a predator.

14. Arctic Moose (Alces alces)

The moose is a type of deer; in fact, it’s the largest member of the deer family and they’re found in abundance across the Arctic, including North America, Scandinavia and Russia. They prefer woodland habitats where there are lots of lakes, swamps, and ponds. They’re generally pretty placid animals, but they can move very quickly if they’re frightened.

Since the Arctic tundra isn’t the easiest ground to walk over, moose have adapted to this with their super wide hoofs and very long legs. They have two toes per foot which spread out and cover more surface, enabling better traction and balance.

Amazingly, moose have flaps on their nostrils which they can close allowing them to dive underwater in search of food. They mainly feed on vegetation, but there’s plenty of that in rivers and lakes.

These animals, which are unusual among deer since they do not move in herds, also have very thick fur that traps heat when the weather is cold. Just like the reindeer we talked about earlier, moose fur also allows the animal to float in water.

15. Narwhal (Monodon monoceros)

The narwhal is a type of whale, but unlike other whale species it has a distinct horn on the front of its head which is why it’s often referred to as the unicorn of the sea. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that this is no ordinary horn, it’s actually an extended tooth! Normally, only the males have this tooth, but it has been recorded in around 15% of females. While it is thought that the tusk is used for sexual selection, there’s also some suggestion that it’s designed to help break through ice.

Narwhals are found throughout the waters surrounding Greenland, North America, and Russia. However, sadly, these creatures are now facing a near threatened status, and there are only around 75,000 left in the wild.

In order to survive the demanding conditions of the Arctic, the narwhals do not have a dorsal fin, just like their cousins the beluga whale. This enables them to swim better under the ice, and they propel themselves using their tail.

Owing to the cold temperatures of the waters in which they live, narwhals have a thick layer of blubber to keep them warm.

16. Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus)

Out of all of the Arctic animals on this list, the walrus is one of the biggest!  Some of the largest specimens can weigh as much as 3500 lbs (1600 kg), and they’ll live for up to 40 years! You can tell how old a walrus is by looking at the rings on its tusks which can grow up to a 3.3 feet (1 meter) in length. They have these specially adapted tusks for fighting but also for helping them climb onto the ice.

While they are a type of pinniped, walruses are different to other pinnipeds in that they are able to walk on their hind fins.

It probably won’t come as much of a surprise that one of the main adaptations of the walrus is its significant amount of blubber which keeps it warm. What’s more, having all this extra body fat means that, when food isn’t as readily available in winter, the animal still has plenty of energy. Their skin also helps to keep them warm as it’s up to four inches (10 cm) thick!

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