Tackling the cold: Secrets from the animal world

Strategies animals use to outlast the deep freeze every winter.

At this time of year, it’s nice to cuddle up with a cup of cocoa and escape the cold. Winter means bundling up in scarves, mitts and thick coats when it’s chilly out. But what about animals that survive the winter elements without a toque? How do animals tackle the cold?

All about insulation

Many mammals get help stay warm under a coat of thick fur. This red fox has fur with stiff hairs that help keep the snow away from its body.  And it carries around its own fashionable scarf. The fox’s big bushy tail makes up one-third of its body and helps it with balance and communication. But when the cold sets in, it’s perfect for wrapping around themselves to keep away the chills.

On Sable Island, off the coast of Nova Scotia, 400,000 grey seals arrive every winter to breed, just in time for snowstorms and gale force winds. But they take it all in their stride. A thick layer of blubber keeps the adults warm, and a combo of blubber and downy fur ensures the newly born pups stay toasty next to mum. Even in the middle of January, they are the ultimate beach bums.

Sleeping away the cold

What’s the most appealing strategy for surviving the cold? Stay in bed! The thirteen-lined ground squirrel digs a cozy burrow and sleeps away the winter months. Sheltered from the sub-zero temperatures above ground, the squirrel remains in a state of ‘torpor’, a deep hibernation that drastically slows its breathing and heart rate. 

One Canadian amphibian goes a step further. The wood frog has no fur to insulate it, no way to migrate away from the cold, and very little in the way of fat reserves. Its strategy? It freezes solid. With its own special anti-freeze to protect its body, this frog is kept in suspended animation, encased in ice.

Just embrace it!

Freezing temperatures ice up the river otters waterways and fishing grounds. But they aren’t worried, they just dive beneath to search for their food. Playful in nature, these otters seem to delight in the cold.

In the Yukon, winter arrives early. The remote Fishing Branch river is fed by a thermal spring and doesn’t freeze, creating a vital lifeline for the local 'ice' bears. These grizzlies flock to the river to feed on chum salmon, one last epic feast to fatten them for a long winter.