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.


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Stay Put – The Muskox Mantra

Stay Put – The Muskox Mantra

Stay Put – The Muskox Mantra

6 minute read – “Winter Is Here” series continues with the legend of cold climate survivors – Muskox! 


Ice age survivor – Oomingmak (Inuit for The Bearded One) is living proof of long-term successful adaptation to a narrow niche – the treeless and blizzard-beaten landscape of the High Arctic Tundra.  In the wild, Muskox inhabit parts of the Circumpolar North – Greenland, Alaska, Norway, Russia and Northern Canada – thriving in some of the coldest, longest and darkest parts of the world. 

Muskox have evolved to have a stout body posture and short legs to conserve body heat in the winter. Their coat, however, is the most fascinating part within the array of adaptations Muskox possess. While the long guard hair reaches all the way down their legs, like a skirt, to offer protection against wind and snow, their thick undercoat, called qiviut, is really what keeps them alive. Qiviut (kiv’-ee-ute) is warmer than sheep wool and is considered one of the softest and warmest materials on earth (and also among the most expensive). Thanks to the unique make-up and extremely high density of this undercoat, combined with the protection provided by the guard hairs, the cold and wet hardly penetrate all the way to the animals’ skin. The qiviut underlayer is grown every year before winter and in the spring, the animal sheds the dense hair again to avoid overheating during the summer months.

In addition to structural adaptations that are easily visible, the Muskox have a number of behavioural traits and physiological adaptations that help them in their harsh natural environment. For instance, food availability and the severity of weather affects how old a muskox female is for her first breeding cycle and also whether calves are born on an interval of every year or every 2 to 3 years. This results in a low reproductive rate for the species but does lower the stress on an individual muskox so they can breed during a year when conditions are more favourable.  From the moment of birth Muskox calves are even prepared to withstand the harsh elements of their new, still winter, world. Born between April and June, their landscape (unlike many of our own that time of year) is still heavily blanketed in snow featuring temperatures well below 0°C.  Calves do not tend to take on the stay-put mantra at birth since that could lead to trouble, quickly. Instead, within minutes of birth, calves are mobile miniature woolly mimics of their adult family members, cleaving to their mothers side and her additional protective skirt. 

A newborn Muskox calf at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve from 2017 and its mom on the move within minutes of being born. 

One behavioural adaptation to the cold is sometimes observed in howling blizzard conditions. Standing stoically in a tight group, Muskox have been able to withstand temperatures up to 70 degrees below zero.  Only in the most severe weather will a Muskox lie down with its back to the wind as added protection. Another behavioural adaptation is to be slow moving and to not roam on long migrations like caribou do 1Learn more about Caribou adaptations. This keeps energy output low and allows the large muskox to thrive on low quality food available in their area.

The Arctic Tundra, the only wild home to Muskox, enjoys winter for up to 8 months per year.  By September there may be snow on the ground and muskoxen are well equipped with front hooves larger than hind, to dig through wind-blown crusted snow, to get to the food below – grasses, sedges and willows.  Muskoxen typically feed in areas where the snow cover is relatively shallow (like valleys). It is usually easy for the Muskox to dig down to the food below, but when the snow crust makes it more challenging, they can lift and drop their head on to the crust to break through to gain access to vegetation.

Where muskox find ways to meet their nutritional needs in a winter-barren landscape their predators, arctic wolves, just the same must test the muskoxen’s formidable stay put mantra. As a survival adaption and anti-predator strategy, fight or flight physiological reaction is important for any prey animal. Many ungulates will choose flight at the sign of threat – fleeing to the protection of forests, like caribou, or to a precipice perfect for only a thinhorn sheep or mountain goat. However, without the protection of any trees; a low variety land form landscape and a dark skyline that merge into one seemingly endless marathon; it’s critical to choose energy conservation, to stay put, and put up a fight through a protective ring. If the Muskox chose flight, it would be less favourable for those calves to keep up to a swiftly moving herd – unless you’re the arctic wolf.   

Muskox are built to last – they persevered through an ice age, after all!  At the Yukon Wildlife Preserve, which is located in a more southern environment than their natural range, they are applying millennia worth of adaptions even in this niche.   Their habitat intentionally faces north, with options for them to take rest in the shade provided by trees of our lower latitude. This further helps preserve a longer snow patch during a typically earlier spring thaw for our muskox, while their more northern and wild cousins still endure weeks to months of true winter.  You might see them as dark bumps resting in the snow, apparently doing nothing. Now you know though, they are just doing what they do best –  saving energy.

To learn more about Muskox and their unique habitat check out Wildlife Management Advisory Counsil – North Slope

A special animated video sharing this incredible animals Yukon story can be watched here!


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. 



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