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The cool Arctic

ReindeerIt’s February 2014 and the winter Olympics are finally with us. Unfortunately many of the wrong kind of animal stories have been making the news, and we’re sure you’ve seen the same news articles as we have and are just as upset as we are. So we thought that we’d have a look at some animals that live in cold environments and what those animals do to survive (N.B. we’re not just sticking with the Sochi area here, please don’t get too angry with us!)

You’re all probably expecting me to talk about polar bears now aren’t you? Well I’m going to take the unusual route of talking about reindeer. Because I like them. Have you ever wondered how some smaller animals survive the harsh conditions where they live? It’s not just the cold these guys have to contend with, but also the lack of things to eat, especially in the winter.   On a trip to Svalbard (an island to the north of Norway, one of the furthest north places that you can live) one summer, I was struck by just how little vegetation there is – it’s not just hard for the animals to live there, also for plants. So the reindeer have adapted to be able to eat almost anything and concentrate in ridges and plateaus in the winter, where snow drifts tend to be less and therefore it’s easier to find food. The only problem with living in these areas is that they are also the coldest, least sheltered areas, and when the temperature can get down to -30oC, this is no mean feat.

Like many other cold weather animals, reindeer eat a lot during the summer and store fat for the winter. They tend to be quite lazy so that they can put on fat for later (but it’s necessary for them so let’s not judge!) and don’t need to use as much energy. But as you may imagine, when it’s so cold for so long and when the sun disappears for over 2 months every year (known as the “polar night”, this happens because the earth is at an angle and so during the winter, the poles are facing away from the sun), Svalbard reindeer also have a special metabolism which is adapted to be especially low. This means that it takes a long time for the reindeer to get energy from their food and that they put on weight especially easily. Studies show that the reindeer can save 15 days worth of energy by being lazy and sitting down for longer – eek! When you have so little food, those 15 days may make all the difference.

Oh! As a final thought, did you know that reindeer have furry antlers? They’re covered by a kind of skin called velvet which provides the blood supply to the growing antlers. In reindeer both the males and the females grow antlers, which is handy as both can use them to clear snow!


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Blog post by Linda Seward of Seward Technical Writing, providers of original science content.

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