• Question: Are any polar animals adapting to suit their everchanging habitat?

    Asked by mimi317 to Davie, James P, James V, Nuala on 4 Jul 2012.
    • Photo: James Verdon

      James Verdon answered on 4 Jul 2012:

      Hi mimi,
      The polar environment is a hugely challenging place to live, but most polar animals are well adapted for life there. The poles experience huge changes between winter and summer, because in winter the sun never comes about the horizon (so it’s continuous night time), while in the summer the sun never sets, so you get continuous day.

      Therefore, most animals at the poles have to make full use of the short summer period, eating as much food as they can. When winter hits, most animals try to ride out the harsh conditions, often by either hibernating (like polar bears) or migrating to warmer latitudes (like caribou and many birds).

      Most polar animals have many adaptations to help them keep warm in the freezing conditions. For example, penguins have a really strange (but cool) circulation system between their body and their feet – the blood going to the feet, which is warm, passes its heat to the blood coming back from the feet, which is cold. By adjusting the amount of heat transferred, penguins keep their feet just above freezing point.

      Many polar animals have thick layers of fat. This serves two purposes – to keep them warm, as it’s an extra layer of insulation, and it’s a food store for the long winter months when food may not be available.

      Some of the changes to their habitat caused by global warming are beginning to have effects at the pole, however. The best example of this is the polar bear. Polar bears need sea ice on which they hunt seals during the summer months. However, as global warming melts the ice, they have less and less to use for hunting, and so it’s becoming harder for them to get food.

    • Photo: Nuala Carson

      Nuala Carson answered on 4 Jul 2012:

      Hey mimi317,

      A great question. If the earth’s climate is going to be significantly changed then all animals will have to adapt, or risk dying out. Climate change is felt and seen first in the polar regions as they are locations that are ‘on the border line’ meaning that small changes in temperature can have massive impacts. That is why we use the polar regions as a gauge of climate change.

      The polar region are home to some of the most unique animals, not found anywhere else. We already know that many of these animals are suffering due to receding levels of sea ice and the problems that go along with that (loss of habitat, loss of food source). Some of the most well known are the polar bears. Their numbers have dropped significantly and the scientific community have recognized the climate change is the biggest threat facing polar bears.

      As you said some animal have already started adapting to a changing environment. One of the ones i know about are the little auks, one of the most common birds in the Arctic. They have managed to change their diet so that they can still hunt in the warming waters. Because of this scientists have not seen any drop in their numbers! Hopefully more animals can adapt like the little auks but we just don’t know!

    • Photo: James Pope

      James Pope answered on 4 Jul 2012:

      Hi mim317,

      All I’d add to these answers already is that whether or not polar animals can adapt to climate change is all down to how fast the climate changes. It can be seen from the fossil record that species can adapt quite well to natural change, which is slower than the change we are affecting, But we can control how fast and how far the climate changes due to our fossil fuel emissions, with fewer emissions meaning that we will have less warming and slower warming which will help all animals, but especially polar animals a lot more to survive.