Adaptations to the cold: Ever wonder how animals and plants survive in harsh environments?

Living in Alaska, or anywhere, you get accustomed to what is around you. You don’t think much about it.  You even take it for granted sometimes.  However, if you look more closely there is usually a fair amount of fascinating, amazing, phenomenal, awesome stuff going on. For me one of those things is how life goes on in a place where day length can be less than 4 hours and temperatures are stay below freezing for months and even plummet well below minus 40 degrees. Here is a glimpse of some interesting strategies you can find in the far north to deal with winter’s harshness…

bumble bee

Bumble bees grow dense “hairs” to hold heat and when it’s really cold, they shiver. They can hold body temperatures as high as 86F/30C above air temperatures. Remember, insects are poikilotherms (i.e cold blooded) and rely on the outside air temperature for  their bodies to work (there is a bit of chemistry going on inside).  I have seen bees flying just below 32F/0C while working above the Arctic Circle in summer. Shivering is a fairly universal trait to stay warm. Bet you’ve been there before.


Many types of plants have furry and waxy coatings which can increase air temperatures around flowers  up to 34F/20C higher than surrounding air. This is vital because cell division is necessary to make seeds and will not occur at lower temperatures. Plants on the tundra also grow in compact forms to keep out of the wind and retain heat. Interestingly, keeping dead leaves is another way to stay insulated without needing the fury or waxy coatings.

snowy owl


Birds have many ways to deal with the cold (Anyone who has read my bio knows I wanted to put this first on the list). Down feathers are an pre-historic adaptation to cold just as burrowing deep into snow.  Burrowing into snow puts birds in an ambient temperature of 32F/0C if above snow temperatures are colder because snow stays at or near freezing temperature. Here in Alaska you will see birds put their bills under wings, tuck one leg up into the body feathers, shiver, push themselves into small spaces in trees, or huddle together. Other physiological changes that have happened are feathering of legs as in snowy owls and ptarmigan.

black bear in Alaska

moose in road

Mammals do it all and then some.  They have fur, they shiver, and then some of them sleep.  Moose have thick hair that is fatter at the tip than base thus trapping more warm air, like bees and plants in a way. Most obvious in Alaska are our hibernators, bears and ground squirrels, who put on as much weight as possible before settling onto winter dens.

wood frog

The coolest (no pun intended) wintering strategy must be the wood frog (our only amphibian).  When I was in undergraduate school for biology in the 90’s, we, the broad term meaning humans, did not know what wood frogs did in winter. It was generally assumed that they burrowed (seen this strategy before) into the mud or under some leaves. Well a study commenced using tiny backpack transmitter’s glued to the wood frogs back.  Once freeze up came students followed the signals to the wood frogs.  There they were, above ground, frozen in place. No kidding. In spring, they thaw and hop on along. Incredible chemical adaptations to cold extremes.

Want to learn more about adaptations to the cold first hand? Come travel to Alaska in the spring (our “Alaska Awakening” tour) and visit with our knowledgeable guides.

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“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you did not do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover …”

-Mark Twain

46 thoughts on “Adaptations to the cold: Ever wonder how animals and plants survive in harsh environments?

    • Whoa, a third of their body weight over night? My inner ornithologist is raising a eyebrow. That would be news to me. I know birds can lose up to 40% of their digestive tract mass in order to migrate. I am going to do some looking into this. Thanks for sharing!


  1. Pingback: Alaska Awakening: Join us in spring for the northern lights, running huskies, and glaciers | ExploreDreamDiscover Talks

  2. Birds that burrow and frogs that freeze and thaw! A person could run out of amazing adjectives for Alaska. *Great post* about how life adapts and survives and even thrives. Life dances there!


  3. I’m a transplant to Alaska. I lived in Kotzebue for two years, and now I’m in my fourth year in Ketchikan…very different climates! I’m amazed at how green the foliage around Ketchikan is, even during winter. Of course the winters here are mild compared to most of the state…rainforest, you know! ~ Sheila


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