Wild animals feel the cold, just like humans. They use a variety of – and often surprising – strategies to survive the coldest temperatures. Here are a few. In cold weather, some animals go into hibernation for several weeks or months. This survival strategy induces major physiological changes in the animals concerned. They enter a state of deep lethargy, allowing them to avoid having to eat or drink for the duration of their hibernation.
The arctic ground squirrel goes even further. This light brown squirrel sleeps from early October to mid-April, more than half the year. This process results in a slowing of its blood flow and a decrease in its body temperature, like any animal that hibernates. Except that, in the case of this particular squirrel, it goes down to -2.9°C, causing the loss of certain vital connections between its neurons. However, biologists have discovered that the animal’s brain is able to compensate for these losses by creating more neural links than before hibernation. This ability fascinates the scientific community, which sees it as a potential way to reverse cellular damage caused by neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Winter coats and antifreeze proteins
Other animals, such as the arctic fox, survive the winter period thanks to their fur. This animal, sometimes called polar fox, snow fox or white fox, lives in regions where temperatures can drop to -70°C. Its white fur serves as a cozy blanket, as does its bushy tail behind, which serves to protect its ears and small muzzle from the cold. The manul, or Pallas cat, also uses its imposing tail to brave the harsh winters of the steppes and mountainous regions of Central Asia. It measures between 25 and 30 centimeters, almost half of the total length of its body. It is therefore not surprising that the animal nestles its two front legs on its tail like a cushion to keep them warm.
Not all animals can rely on their coat when they begin to feel the effects of winter. But they have other assets to get through the season. One such animal is Arctic cod. This aquatic animal is a poikilothermic organism, like all fish. In other words, his body temperature is directly related to that of his natural environment. Arctic cod generally live in waters with temperatures ranging from 0 to 4°C, although they can sometimes be lower. However, this fish adapts by producing antifreeze proteins. These proteins bind to the ice crystals in his blood to keep him from freezing completely.
One for all and all for one!
There is no antifreeze protein for emperor penguins. However, they have to face temperatures below -40°C and winds sometimes blowing up to 250 km/h. Their secret lies in the four layers of feathers that cover their body. These interlock with each other, creating a waterproof and windproof structure. While their backs and bellies are very well insulated, emperor penguins lose some heat through their eyes, fins and legs. However, they have a thick layer of fat under their skin and a special blood circulation system, which allows them to maintain their body temperature despite extreme weather conditions.
But the real strength of emperor penguins lies in their social structure. In the depths of winter, they huddle in what is called turtle formation. In other words, they huddle together, heads down, to warm up. They constantly change places to ensure that the same penguins do not remain exposed to the cold. This strategy is very effective since the temperature at the core of the group can reach 34°C, against -35°C in the surrounding area. Even more impressively, emperor penguins adopt this behavior from an early age. We can observe in the nurseries, the groupings of chicks that form when the adult penguins leave to look for food at sea.
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