Meet the Como Zoo animal ambassadors that can’t get enough of cold weather.
Whether they’re diving into near-freezing water, or digging deep into fresh powder to follow an interesting scent, polar bears Buzz and Neil are never bothered by bad winter weather or below zero temperatures.
But when they first moved to Minnesota from California in 2002, that first winter did take some getting used to. “That first snowfall was magical,” says Allison Jungheim, Como Zoo senior keeper. “They’d just come from San Diego, and they’d never seen snow before, and when we let them out it was just a great experience. If we get a really good snowfall, they still love to roll around and take a snow bath in it.”
Buzz and Neil aren’t the only animals at Como Zoo that light up when temperatures get low. Here’s how animal ambassadors that thrive in winter are built to withstand the season’s worst:
If Alya’s feet look a little too large for her body, it’s because those big furry paws function like a built-in snow shoe, helping to distribute a snow leopard’s weight more evenly across its snowy high-altitude habitat. Her thick tail also stores fat for lean times, wrapping around his body like a scarf when he needs extra warmth. Even her nose is built for freezing temperatures, with a short and wide nasal cavity that helps to warm up the bitter air before it reaches the large cat’s lungs.
Just like bears in the wild, Buzz and Neil bulk up in the winter with a layer of fat that helps them to withstand biting windchills and near-freezing water. “The cold weather can be a little hard to predict, but generally we start feeding them extra diet starting in late October,” says Jungheim. Polar bears can gain nearly 50 percent of their body weight during a good hunting season, but blubber isn’t the only way they stand up to cold weather—black skin under their translucent fur helps them soak up heat from the sun.
Why do Como Zoo’s bison Aunt Bea, Bogo and Yellowtag look so chill when they lay down in the snow? Credit the woolly winter coats they grow each season, a thick outer layer like a windproof jacket and an undercoat of soft, downy fur that Jungheim says acts as an “insulating layer” to protect them from wet snow and strong winds. The muscular hump on their backs is also a big help for winter foraging, moving the snow aside like a plow and allowing bison to graze on grasses and sedge beneath.
Unlike their domesticated counterparts, these wild sheep are very comfortable in harsh climates, living at altitudes of up to 6,500 feet in Alaska and parts of Canada. During winter, they develop an extra thick wool for insulation, and their cloven hoofs have rough pads that allow them to cling to cliff edges and other inhospitable locations.
Zephyr and Stella change colors throughout the year, shifting from grayish brown to blend in with the summer’s arctic environment, to snowy white in winter. Their fur is also some of the warmest on the planet, with pelts that can withstand temperatures as low as negative 70 Celsius. Burrowers by nature, arctic foxes are known to dig in during blizzards, keeping warm in their snow dens while the cold winds whip outside.
They may not be able to fly, but reindeer do have many adaptations that help them rise above the worst weather, including a super thick coat of insulating fur, and foot pads that harden in the winter, giving them more traction on snow and ice. Still, it’s no surprise the storybooks drafted reindeers as Santa’s strongest helpers, says Jungheim. “They’re very curious and interactive animals.”