Some of Como Zoo’s heartiest residents are already getting ready for winter
If the crisp mornings and shorter daylight hours are making you a little hungrier than usual, you’re not alone. Como Zoo’s reindeer have also cued into the seasonal signals, and are waiting impatiently at the barn door every morning when keeper Jill Erzar reports for duty.
“We don’t follow a set schedule for increasing their food supply—they let us know when they’re ready to start storing energy,” she says. “The arctic foxes suddenly seem like they’re starving, and all of our reindeer have been eating like crazy for about a month now.”
With cooler temperatures and quieter zoo grounds, fall is always a prime season for seeing animals at their most active. But few zoo residents welcome the return of cold weather quite like the mammals made to thrive in North America’s most extreme climates. Here’s a look at how the residents of Como Zoo’s historic barn are gearing up for winter:
Reindeer: “When the weather starts to change, the reindeer start bulking up. For the females, the extra fat storage is good for getting through the winter, and for the males, they’re bulking up for breeding season and for fighting off the other boys,” Erzar explains.
This summer, you may have noticed that the male reindeer Forest’s antlers were covered in velvet—a covering of soft fur, skin and blood vessels that feed the fast-growing antlers underneath. Now that velvet is beginning to shed, a process that will cause most male reindeers to drop their antlers in November. (The females will keep theirs until May, when calves are born in the wild.) “You might see the reindeer rubbing their antlers against hard surfaces or dripping blood—it looks like that process itches like crazy,” Erzar says.
Even the reindeers’ feet are undergoing a major change this fall, as their soft, black hooves become harder and sharper, helping them navigate better through the snow and ice.
Dall’s sheep: Born this spring at a starting weight of about six pounds, Como Zoo’s two newest Dall’s sheep, Skywalker and Nimbus, have been growing like weeds, and should weigh in around 60 to 70 pounds as they face their first winter. It will take another few years before the males begin to develop the curled horns that give this species its distinctive look.
Bison: Like their neighbors around the Barn, Como Zoo’s bison are building up a thick undercoat of fur that will make their pelts nearly impenetrable by the time winter comes. With eight times as many hair follicles as cattle, bison have one of the best insulated coats in the animal kingdom. Their fur is especially thick on their heads, chest and front legs, an adaptation that allows them to face directly into blizzards and blustery weather without feeling the sting.
Arctic Foxes: Adapted to survive some of the coldest temperatures on the planet, arctic foxes have a harder time in hot weather. “Like a lot of us, they can be a little lethargic in really hot weather, but now that it’s getting cool, they’re much more active,” Erzar says.
During the summer, arctic fox fur takes on a brown and gray color that allows them to blend in with the rocks and soil of the Arctic landscape. But as winter approaches, the arctic foxes begin to grow an underlayer of hollow-shafted white fur—similar to polar bears—that helps them to stay camouflaged in the snow and ice and well insulated from the elements.
On your next visit, see if you can catch a glimpse of the arctic foxes’ feet. “They have an amazing adaptation which is fully furred feet, even on the bottom, which allows them to withstand temperatures of negative 40 degrees,” says Erzar. Foxes also use their fluffy white tails for protection, wrapping it around their bodies like a scarf.