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As the days shorten and the weather gets colder, it’s easy for most of us humans to adapt. Simply break out the long underwear, dust off the winter coat and we’re pretty much ready to go, at least here in the Midwest. Now what about those animals out in the wild? While we’re all familiar with bears hibernating through the winter, birds migrating to warmer settings and other animals living off stored food that they’ve been saving up since the summer, how the heck do those animals who remain active not only brave the elements but function in these conditions, especially in the coldest regions of the world? Understanding the answer to this question requires an appreciation for the adaptability, resiliency and creativity of leatherback turtles, penguins, arctic foxes, golden-crowned kinglets and many other animals.
Take Your Leather Coat, Give Me a Leatherback Turtle
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Around for more than 100 million years, the leatherback turtle has certainly evolved as a deep sea diver capable of surviving in the coldest, deepest waters. For these unique reptiles, it’s good to be big. Weighing up to 2,000 pounds, leatherbacks remain warm in cold water in large part to their mass and natural abilities to slow heat loss. Outgoing blood warms cool blood in the leatherback flippers before it reaches the body core, and a sphincter in these turtle’s throats shuts off blood flow to the lungs when diving, allowing these amazing creatures to conserve energy when needed. In the deepest waters, leatherbacks get plenty of sustenance from jellyfish, their favorite meal.
March (Madness) of the Penguins: Survive and Advance
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While penguins may be celebrated in film for their triumphs on land (and aided outside the water during the cold by their compact feathers, including up to 70 feathers per square inch), these intriguing fellas do spend nearly 3/4 of their lives in the water. So what is the key to their success? Chalk it up to an insulating layer of blubber and the ability to generate body heat by staying active (penguins are able to jet through the water at speeds of up to 15 mph). Other ways penguins stay warm include tucking in their flippers to reduce the surface area for heat loss, absorbing heat from the sun via their black, back feathers, and reducing their contact with the ice by tipping up their feet and standing on their heels in a tripod-like position.
Size Matters: Bigger (and thus Warmer) than the Competition
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For other warm-blooded mammals like whales, seals and walruses, it certainly helps to be big, as the larger the mammal, the lesser the surface area to lose heat. With that said, fur seals benefit not only from weighing roughly 600 pounds as adults but having thick under and overcoats that they shed once a year, and blubber under the skin that can range from one to six inches. For Beluga whales, five inches of blubber certainly helps, as do unique adaptations like a dorsal fin that can break through ice for attaining fresh air, a flexible neck that allows for more maneuverability while navigating cold waters during migration, and amazing endurance (these whales can cover 100 miles in one day). Eat your heart out, Michael Phelps.
Becoming One with the Land
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Outside the water, land-based animals must be as adaptive to the perils of the Arctic tundra in order to ensure survival. What blubber is to keeping penguins, seals, whales and walruses warm, fur is to caribou, musk oxen and arctic wolves, with the last two examples having thick, long hair overcoats and supplemental undercoats of fleece and fur, respectively. In comparison to other wolves, arctic wolves have smaller, rounder ears and shorter muzzles and legs that help them reduce heat loss. For some animals like the arctic fox, snowshoe hare, collared lemming, and ermine (least weasel), their fur actually changes colors from brownish-gray to white during the winter, offering them not only a needed blanket but an advantageous form of camouflage that makes them hard to identify in the snow. Lemmings, which look like fat furry hamsters, and arctic ground squirrels (the only arctic animal to hibernate) also keep themselves warm by staying in tunnels under the snow (as Ben Folds Five once sang, “you can be happy underground”), while hundreds of arctic hare display another crafty way of generating heat by congregating and packing themselves close to each other.
Adaptive Skills Fit for a Diminutive King
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Last but not least is the cool story of the golden-crowned kinglet, a tiny bird that resides in Canada and various parts of the United States, Central America and Mexico. Weighing less than a fifth of an ounce, this bird species is able to survive cold weathers via several intriguing adaptations. Researchers have found that the kinglets subsist on hibernating inchworms that reside in their stomachs, keep warm via their plentiful feathers that insulate their small bodies, provide further insulation by puffing out thier bodies (similar to many other birds), and huddle together at night for even more warmth.