Snug in the Snow

BY AWAKE! WRITER IN FINLAND

WITHOUT adequate clothing and footwear, humans would suffer greatly and even perish in the frigid winters of the Far North. Yet, for countless animals life goes on, no matter the season. Besides benefiting from a snug winter coat of feathers or fur, animals also make good use of the amazing insulating power of snow.

Snow consists of crystals of ice formed directly from water vapor—ten inches of snow is equal to about an inch of water. Snow, therefore, contains a lot of air, which is captured between the crystals. This amazing design makes snow a good insulator against extreme cold, protecting seeds and plants until the spring thaw. Then, like a huge reservoir of congealed water molded to the terrain, the snow melts, watering the soil and feeding the streams.

Life Under the “Blanket”

Darting about through networks of tunnels just beneath the snow may be any number of tiny, furry animals going about their daily business, a large part of which is often a frenetic search for food. They include lemmings, voles, and shrews—small, chiefly nocturnal insectivores related to moles. Mice, on the other hand, can often be seen scurrying about on the surface of the snow in search of berries, nuts, seeds, and the soft outer bark of young trees.

A hareHare

How do smaller mammals maintain the right body temperature? Many have not only a warm winter coat but also a built-in furnace in the form of a rapid metabolism. As you can imagine, these living heaters need lots of fuel. Shrews, for instance, eat close to their own weight in insects, larvas, and pupas each day. Proportionately, the smallest species—the pygmy shrew—eats even more! Therefore, practically every waking moment is filled with a relentless search for food.

The many tiny mammals, in turn, are high on the menu of predators, including the owl and two members of the weasel family, the ermine and the least weasel. Slender and agile, weasels are well equipped to negotiate snowy, hidden labyrinths in their quest for food. Weasels even hunt rabbits, which exceed them in size.

The owls are also on the prowl. The great gray owl has such acute hearing that it can detect and track a vole moving about beneath the snow—providing that the snow is not too deep. Once the owl locates a target, it plunges into the snow, grasps its hapless prey in its viselike talons, and carries the victim away. Deep snow, however, may spell hunger and even starvation for many predators and overpopulation for prey species.

So that they do not starve during the lean winter season, many animals tap into fat reserves accumulated during the warmer months. Some food, though, is usually available. For example, moose nibble the young branches of trees, especially pines. Squirrels dine on nutritious seeds hidden in their larders, and hares gnaw on young bark, twigs, and shoots. Certain species of birds enjoy frozen berries and pine sprigs.

PetrelsPetrels inside a cave

Diving Into Snow From on the Wing!

A number of birds exploit the insulating power of snow to keep warm while resting during the day or sleeping at night. They include the hazel hen, the black grouse, and the ptarmigan, as well as smaller birds such as the linnet, the bullfinch, and the sparrow. If the snow is deep and soft, some birds simply dive straight in on the wing, like a seabird plunging into water. This clever strategy leaves no trail of footprints for predators to see or smell.

Once inside a bank of snow, the birds excavate a horizontal hollow up to three feet long, called a kieppi in Finnish. Overnight winds erase from the surface any signs of the life below. When people out for a trek trudge a little too close to one of these avian dens, the crunch of snow alerts the birds. The resulting explosion of snow and wildly beating wings just feet away can give a good jolt to the heart of any unsuspecting trekker!

Donning the Winter Wardrobe

An arctic foxArctic fox

As the seasons change, some arctic animals camouflage themselves by exchanging summer fur or feathers for a winter coat that blends in with the snowy environment. In Finland, arctic foxes, blue hare, and several species of weasels grow thick, white or near-white fur in the autumn.*

Similarly, the mottled summer plumage of the ptarmigan gives way to a brilliant white. And their toes, sparsely feathered during the warmer months, become heavily feathered, forming efficient “snowshoes.” Even while changing costumes, certain prey species enjoy protection because their variegated tones blend in with the dappled look of ground that is partially covered in snow.

SwansSwans

Have you ever wondered why birds, many of which walk about in snow or on ice bare-legged, do not suffer harm or, at the least, extreme discomfort? They possess a superbly engineered heat exchanger in their legs. This amazing design causes warm arterial blood from the heart to travel down the legs and to heat the cool blood returning from the feet.

Yes, from the icy poles to the sweltering Tropics, life does not simply endure our planet’s extremes. Instead, it thrives on them. The men and women who discover and film such life usually receive high praise for their efforts—and rightly so! How much more, then, should we praise the Creator of earth’s living wonders! Says Revelation 4:11: “You are worthy, Jehovah, even our God, to receive the glory and the honor and the power, because you created all things, and because of your will they existed and were created.”


*  Common names may vary. Blue hare, for example, have many names, including mountain hare, tundra hare, and variable hare.

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