As temperatures drop around Puget Sound, we scramble to unearth winter coats, boots, scarves and mittens from their closet hiding places to bundle human heads, hands and feet in warmth.
However, much farther north in the Arctic, animals are well ahead of us in their winter preparations.
While we are lucky enough here in the mild land of temperate rainforests to enjoy the color green year-round, Arctic residents experience a dramatic shift in their surroundings. Temperatures plummet by 80 degrees or more. Summer greens and browns give way to a near complete whiteout. Ice and snow carpet the landscape for months, changing the game of survival for wild animals.
How would you fare in this icy region? To do well as an Arctic animal, you would need the right adaptations to help you blend in and stay warm.
WHO NEEDS COLOR?
Against a white background, colors like brown, red, black and gray pop out like a bull’s-eye target. Many animals trade in their colorful coats for brilliant white coverings.
How do they manage this transformation? Since fur and feathers are made of no-longer-living tissue, animals cannot easily alter their color. But they can grow fresh coats in a new color by ditching something called melanin. Scientists think shorter fall daylight time triggers animals such as Arctic foxes, ptarmigans, hares, lemmings and ermines to drop their levels of melanin, the pigment that gives color to our skin and hair. Without this pigment, winter coats grow in plain white.
Don’t worry though. As an Arctic animal, you won’t lose melanin for good. As spring brings longer stretches of daylight, your Arctic body will boost its melanin and welcome back another colorful summer coat.
Now that you are successfully camouflaged, you can turn your attention toward keeping warm. Throughout the long Arctic winter, the average temperature is about -30 degrees Fahrenheit. As you move around in search of food, your body will burn calories at a furious pace unless you conserve energy.
Arctic animals trap precious heat with a variety of naturally adapted layers. Muskoxen brace against wind and falling snow with a shaggy outer coat of long hair, while holding body heat with a thick fleece undercoat. Chicken-size birds called ptarmigans also block harsh winter weather with an outer layer, made of long contour feathers. These keep a rigid, “classic feather” shape thanks to a stiff, central straw-like shaft, and tiny hooks that zip the feathers together. The ptarmigans’ inner downy feathers skip those structural elements, leaving them smaller, fluffier and better able to trap warm air close to the bird’s skin.
Feathers and fur aren’t your only choices, though. Imagine joining the Pacific walrus for a swim, and you may want to go with a thick internal layer of blubber. This dense fat, up to six inches thick, stores extra fuel for the walrus, insulates against the frigid water, makes a more hydrodynamic body shape and even helps the 1,200- to 4,400-pound behemoth float.
KEEP EVERYTHING TUCKED
Finally, to really make sure that you don’t lose heat, you’ll want to keep your appendages close to your body. Long limbs, tails and ears work well in desert climates because they offer a broad surface area where blood vessels close to the skin help lose extra heat. The opposite works in the Arctic. Polar bears and lemmings have tiny, rounded ears and tails. Arctic hares, foxes and wolves are smaller than their warmer-habitat counterparts, with shorter legs, ears and, in the case of wolves, even muzzles.
Shorter and smaller equals less heat lost. It helps to stay compact in polar bear territory. So, now that you are tucked and bundled in layers of white, you can enjoy a hot chocolate toast to your wild northern neighbors as they brave winter in Arctic style.
To see and celebrate Arctic animals such as polar bears, foxes, muskoxen and Pacific walruses, visit Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium for Arctic Animal Play Day on Saturday, beginning at 9:30 a.m.
HELP ARCTIC HABITAT
Many wintery wildlife adaptations revolve around energy conservation. Take a cue from animals and learn how much energy and money you can save this winter by trying some of the following tips adapted from Marye Audet’s “35 Ways to Winterize Your Home Without Poisoning Your Family” via The Learning Channel’s website: tlc.howstuffworks.com/home/winterize-home-poisoning-family.htm.
• Wrap your windows in plastic.
• Install weather stripping.
• Sew a fun, Arctic draft stopper – ermine-style.
• Reverse direction on your ceiling fans, pushing hot air down and helping it to recirculate.
• Move any furniture off or away from vents.
• Cover your water heater with an insulating blanket.
• Install a heat recovery ventilator if your house is closed-up tight to keep fresh air circulating and prevent the buildup of toxic gas.
• Remember your home-on-the-go: Turn off your car when waiting curbside or in line; you’ll save fuel and help to protect Arctic habitat.