The Animals are Quite Fine Outside

The Animals are Quite Fine Outside

The Animals are Quite Fine Outside

5 minute read –

After a beautiful, drawn out fall (by Yukon standards), winter arrived in force at the end of October 2020. Record setting snowfall on November 2nd 2020 kicked winter into full gear. Shutdowns were widespread (including here at the Preserve). It was snow joke!

Now that we’ve dug ourselves out, we can offer winter wildlife viewing at its finest! Without leaves on the trees and a beautiful white backdrop, its easier to spot the animals (although the Arctic Foxes can be a bit tricky with their white winter coat). It is especially satisfying to watch animals in their element.

We sometimes get asked if we bring them inside when it gets cold. Apart from the obvious challenges of convincing the Mountain Goats to come down off their cliff, I think they all might get a little hot if they had to be inside. I don’t even want to think about “musk”ox in an enclosed space. And the Bison probably wouldn’t listen to us, even if we asked nicely. Anyway.

They are quite fine outdoors. If you’re not convinced, I give you:

 

Exhibit A: Muskox and Caribou

Muskox and Caribou were wandering around with mammoths on the Beringian steppes during the last ice age. (For better or for worse, the giant beavers didn’t make it). The Preserve’s other ice age animal (and unofficial 13th species) the ground squirrel is much more sensible. They are currently napping right now instead trying to eat each other. While there’s been a lot of snow so far, it’s probably not as much as they had last ice age.

Rebecca spotting deer, in layered clothing to blend into the vegetation - Cora Romanow

Exhibit B: Arctic Foxes.

They also get around the north (quite fine, thank you very much). Incidentally, they may be illegally immigrating into Canada from Norway. This is probably because they are the bomb. By which I mean “Among mammals, the arctic fox has the best insulative fur of all.” In the same paper, they also note that Arctic Foxes don’t start shivering until somewhere below -40c. They’re not quite sure how cold it needs to get, because the scientists that tried, “…did not succeed, because they did not have the necessary equipment available to reach sufficiently low ambient temperatures.”

This Arctic Fox is not only warm, but also enjoying a pumpkin filled with meat treat. No tricks here.

Exhibit C: Mule Deer.

Now stay with me. I realize I’m skipping past a few animals to get to what is arguably the least “winterized” animal at the Preserve. Their large ears and delicate hooves say “I’m new here”. And that’s true – they were first sighted in the Yukon in the 1930s and 40s.

What’s so remarkable about Mule Deer is just how wide a range they now have. Several years ago I was camping in the dessert outside Phoenix, Arizona. And believe it or not, there were Mule Deer wandering around between the prickly pear cactuses! Meanwhile they are now seen as far North as Dawson City, Yukon!! They are simply remarkable animals (Rebecca will back me up on this) that deserve a lot more credit than they get.

And finally,

Exhibit D: Humans

It’s really just us that get hung up about the cold. Last January I had an excellent opportunity to  to make a questionable life choice and strip down to a thin long-sleeve shirt while standing beside a caribou at -35c. I decided to leave my pants on as well as my long underwear not to mention my wool snow pants. Even so, it was quite cold. Painfully cold. Luckily Josh Robertson, a PHD student studying animals with thermal cameras had his camera handy:

The bright yellow bits in the second image are all my heat escaping out into the atmosphere. The caribou is busy eating and clearly doesn’t care. (If you found this foray into thermal imaging unsatisfyingly brief, you’re in luck, we’ve got more on this in the works)!

The animals have got this.

If you haven’t experienced these Yukon species in their element, I highly recommend a trip to the Preserve. If you’re worried about the cold I recommend:

  • Walking (shivering is a metabolic way of warming your core temperature, but walking is a way more effective).
  • Bring some snacks (to fuel your internal furnace).
  • Wear warm clothes (and you know… maybe don’t strip down to pose with animals). Soft soled boots keep your feet flexing and therefore warm. A warm hat keeps the heat from leaking out the top.

I got around a couple days ago and took a few photos to give you a taste of what you’re missing out on! Click for bigger versions – and see if you can find any of the Preserve’s bigger “cats”.

Jake Paleczny

Jake Paleczny

Executive Director

Jake Paleczny is passionate about interpretation and education. He gained his interpretative expertise from a decade of work in Ontario’s provincial parks in addition to a Masters in Museum Studies from the University of Toronto. His interests also extend into the artistic realm, with a Bachelor of Music from the University of Western Ontario and extensive experience in galleries and museums.

867-456-7313
jake@yukonwildlife.ca

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Roam and Reign – “Winter is Here” Caribou Edition

Roam and Reign – “Winter is Here” Caribou Edition

Roam and Reign – “Winter is Here” Caribou Edition

6 minute read – “Winter Is Here” series begins with the “king of the tundra” – Caribou!

Here comes the king of the tundra. Being one of the few animals escaping the mass extinction of species after the last ice age, caribou are royally adapted to life in the North, which happens to be predominantly winter season! In the wild, they live all across the circumpolar region, including Europe and Russia, where they are called Reindeer. Both Caribou and Reindeer are the same species, only the Reindeer is generally a bit smaller and most herds on the Eurasian continent are actually domesticated. The Wildlife Preserve is home to a group of the Boreal Woodland Caribou, the largest representative of its kind. 

 

Compared to their body size, Caribou have relatively large, split-hooves which they can spread the toes out wide. This enables them to distribute their weight onto a larger surface and walk across snow, ice and sort-of-frozen swamps more efficiently. Their hooves also harden up in the winter and become overgrown by hair. The hair insulates the live, fleshy inside part of the hoof from the cold and the hardened horn on the outside helps them to paw through the snow cover to get to their food. 

Like most arctic animals, their posture is stocky and compact, in order not to lose too much body heat. A crucial addition to body shape is their coat. Like most dogs, caribou have a double coat with a softer underlayer and a coarse outer layer. This prevents heat loss but also from getting wet when they lie in the snow for example. Hairs of the outer coat are hollow, which offers further insulation. 

Even their noses are designed for the cold – the inner bones are shaped to increase the surface area inside the nostrils so when they breathe in the cold air, it has more time to warm up within the body before reaching the lungs. And on the way out, the air is cooled down on the way and most of the body heat is retained before breathing it out. Have you ever noticed steam coming out of a caribou’s nostrils? Neither have we and that’s why. 

 

Caribou and reindeer follow ancient migration routes throughout the seasons. Some just change a mountain range to get to their winter food supply and spring calving grounds, others travel over hundreds of miles to get to a different habitat. Their roaming is also believed to have evolved following environmental conditions. Compared to the storm-beaten, treeless tundra, the boreal taiga forest offers better shelter and easier access to food due to thinner snow cover. 

In the wild, the Caribou’s main diet is an algae-like organism called lichen. It grows on rocks and on specific soil conditions such as the wide pine tree stands of the boreal forest. The animal reaches its food by pawing away the snow on top of it with their hooves or scratching it away with their antlers, sometimes even pushing through thin ice layers. As well adapted as caribou have become over millennia, the – in evolutionary terms – recent climate change poses entirely new challenges. Temperatures don’t always remain below freezing all winter. There are so-called warm spells, where snow on the ground melts and re-freezes as a thick, impenetrable layer of ice once temperatures drop again. This can – and has been – detrimental to the survival of the caribou. While their technique with hooves and antlers works well in the fluffy, powder-like snow that falls in dry northern climates, intermediate melting of the snow cover, increased humidity from lack of sea ice and in some cases even freezing rain – make it impossible for caribou to punch through the thick layer of ice in order to get to their food. In 2016, tens of thousands of reindeer died of starvation during exceptional weather conditions. 

Caribou at the Preserve fare quite well even in those exceptional weather conditions. Staff monitor and feed animals daily. In the summer the individuals are able to bulk-up on plenty of high nutrient foods.  It’s important that wild caribou populations have good summer food sources to consume for both the success of their offspring and ultimately their species! Protecting these special places so caribou can thrive has been an on-going effort in the territory and beyond. In the territory and specific to woodland caribou the rebounding Southern Lakes Caribou sub-population has been a long but successful story by many . We have been able to expand our learning and understanding to these animals’ needs, movements and adaptations in a ever changing world.  

Sarah Stuecker

Sarah Stuecker

Wildlife Interpreter

As a wilderness guide, Sarah has spent many days out in the bush over the years. Sitting out there glued to the scope is just as fascinating to her as observing and following animal tracks in the depth of winter, trying to draw conclusions of what this particular critter might have been up to. Sarah is passionately sharing her stories as part of our team of wildlife interpreters. 

 

867-456-7300
 info@yukonwildlife.ca

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