Animal Adaptations in Cold Environments

Animal Adaptations in Cold Environments

Welcome back to Beyond’s Geography Blog! This exciting post focuses on animal adaptations in cold environments. We’ll be looking at a number of different animals ranging from the Arctic Fox and the Snowy Owl, to Reindeer and Emperor Penguins…n’awh.

Revision is made easy with the key adaptations listed for each animal. Learn about Reindeer and their ultraviolet vision, how the Polar Bear has transparent fur to reflect visible light for camouflage and the famous stalking technique of the Leopard Seal. 

So, get ready to learn about the important elements you need to know about animal adaptations in cold environments. 

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Animal Adaptations in Cold Environments: Migration and Adaptation

Polar bears are related to the brown bears of North America. Thousands of years ago, a population of brown bears would have migrated north across the continent to the Arctic. 

Over time they would have evolved to become polar bears in order to survive the polar environment. Similarly, penguins are only found in the Antarctic as they have evolved from a species of bird that settled in the Antarctic thousands of years ago.  

Animals that live in polar areas have special adaptations to help them survive in this harsh environment. 

Find helpful Polar Animals Fact File Sheets below.

Polar Animals Fact File Sheets

Want to learn about Animal Adaptations to Extreme Environments? Click below for a helpful lesson pack.

Animal Adaptations to Extreme Environments Lesson Pack

Polar Animal Adaptations – Snowy Owl

The snowy owl is also known as the Arctic owl. They are mainly found in the Arctic tundra.


  • Have big eyes and excellent night vision for hunting prey.
  • Have short, curved and hooked beaks for gripping their prey.
  • Snowy owls can hunt during the day as well as the night. This is important especially during the Arctic summer where there can be up to 24 hours of daylight.
  • White feathers all over its body to provide camouflage to avoid predators e.g. Arctic fox and to avoid detection by their prey.
  • Thick feathers which provide insulation against the cold.
  • Can rotate their necks up to 270° in either direction.
  • A very good sense of hearing helps to detect prey in low light or under snow cover.
  • Their wingspan is huge: between 4-5 feet.
  • They are able to fly silently so as not to disturb their prey.
  • Long talons help them to catch their prey.

Polar Animal Adaptations – Orca (Killer Whale)

Orcas, which are also known as killer whales, are found in the Arctic and Antarctic oceans. They can grow up to 10m long and weigh up to 10 tonnes.


  • Streamlined bodies which help them glide through the water easily and swim faster.
  • Individual orcas can beach themselves onto the land or ice to frighten penguins or seals into the water, where they are caught by the waiting orca pod!
  • Thick layer of blubber for warmth.
  • Can swim very fast (up to 30mph) to catch prey.
  • Use echolocation (bouncing sounds off objects) in order to locate their positions and for hunting prey.
  • Have sharp teeth up to 10cm long, to rip apart and chew their prey.
  • Have fins, flippers and a tail to help them steer in the water and hunt prey.
  • Travel in groups, called pods, for warmth and for hunting.
  • Can produce high-pitched clicking sounds to stun their prey.
  • Can dive underwater for up to four minutes to hunt their prey.
  • Have a white belly which camouflages them against the surface of the ocean to any prey below. The rest of the body is black which provides camouflage against the sea to creatures swimming above them.
  • Can slow their heart rate to save oxygen. This allows them to dive for longer than ten minutes at a time and hunt for food.

Polar Animal Adaptations – Arctic Fox


  • Have a thick fur coat for insulation against the cold.
  • In winter, the coat is white to provide camouflage against the ice and snow.
  • In summer, when the snow has melted, they have a thin, dark grey or brown coat which provides camouflage against rock and vegetation.
  • Have short legs and necks and smaller ears when compared to other species of fox. This means that there is less surface area to lose heat from.
  • A thick, furry tail which it can wrap around its body for extra warmth in extremely cold weather.
  • Thick fur on the paws to provide grip and to help insulate them from snow and ice.
  • Thick layer of body fat for insulation and as a source of energy in the winter when there is less food.
  • Digs burrows in the snow for shelter during very cold weather and blizzards.
  • Very good sense of hearing. They can hear their prey (mainly lemmings) moving through their tunnels in the snow.

Polar Animal Adaptations – Reindeer

Reindeer are a species of deer. They can be found in Northern Asia, Europe, Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland.


  • Have antlers for clearing snow to find food and for defence against predators.
  • A special chamber in their nose warms each breath as they breathe in.
  • Thick fur coat for warmth and protection from the weather. A thicker undercoat is grown for the winter, which is shed in spring/summer.
  • Sharp hooves to grip into the ice and snow and to dig through the snow to find food in winter. In summer, the footpads become spongier for secure footing on the soft tundra.
  • Have ultraviolet vision. They can see camouflaged predators like wolves clearly against the snow as well as lichen, their main food source.
  • Some herds of reindeer migrate up to 5000km a year. They migrate north in summer in search of grazing land. In winter, they migrate south to forest areas which provide shelter from winter storms.
  • Able to swim well as their coat traps air when in water which helps them to float.

Polar Animal Adaptations – Polar Bear

Polar Bears are the world’s biggest land-based carnivores! They mainly eat seals but can hunt small whales. They are found across the Arctic Ocean, in parts of Canada, Alaska, Russia, Greenland and Norway (Svalbard).


  • Small, furry ears, short tail and short muzzle to reduce heat loss.
  • Their skin beneath their fur is black, helping them absorb heat and keep warm.
  • Thick layer of body fat / blubber (up 10cm thick) which is used for insulation and an energy source when there is less food. Up to 50% of a polar bear’s weight can be body fat!
  • Body fat helps them to float naturally when swimming, avoiding having to use energy to keep their head out of the water.
  • Able to convert their body fat into water which is important when freshwater may be frozen in winter months.
  • Large paws to help spread weight over ice and snow.
  • Thick fur on paws to insulate them from snow and ice and for grip.
  • Hollow, transparent fur reflects visible light to camouflage them against the ice and snow.
  • Can walk or swim over huge areas (up to 600 000 km2) to find food or to breed. 
  • Very high fat diet e.g. seal blubber which provides energy.
  • Can dig dens in the snow to provide insulation from extreme cold and blizzards. 

Polar Animal Adaptations – Leopard Seal

The leopard seal is the second largest species of seal in the Antarctic. It is one of Antarctica’s top predators, second only to the orca (killer whale). 


  • Very strong, sharp teeth to grip and tear their prey such as penguins or fur seals.
  • Thick layer of blubber (up to 9cm thick in winter). The blubber helps insulate against the cold water and adds buoyancy to help the seal swim.
  • Streamlined body shape for efficient swimming.
  • Successful hunters using a stalking technique before lunging at their prey.
  • Strong jaws which they can open very wide. This allows them to bite and seriously injure their prey when hunting. 
  • Can feed on a variety of prey ranging from small krill to penguins. 
  • This allows them to gain maximum energy from foraging.
  • Can survive in sea temperatures as low as -5°C

Polar Animal Adaptations – Krill

Krill are similar to shrimp and grow to about 6cm long. They are the main source of food and nutrients for fish, squid, penguins and whales. Without the existence of krill many animals living in Antarctic waters would not survive.


  • Have a hard exoskeleton. This is a hard covering which protects their body from predators.
  • Krill swim in huge swarms as a defense against predators. There can be between 10 000 to 30 000 krill per m2 of sea water.
  • Feed on microscopic plants which live in the ocean called phytoplankton.
  • They are cold-blooded, allowing them to survive in freezing oceans without body fat to keep them warm.
  • Can swim backwards very quickly to escape predators.
  • Can live without food for up to 200 days by using up their energy reserves and shrinking their bodies. 
  • Can swim to depths of 100m to avoid predators.
  • Highly developed eyes to see more of their environment and detect predators.
  • Female krill can lay up to 10 000 eggs several times per season. This ensures the survival of the species.

Polar Animal Adaptations – Emperor Penguins


  • They have powerful claws to help to grip the snow, ice or rock.
  • To keep warm, huge groups of penguins huddle together to conserve heat and shield each other from the wind. The penguins keep moving, each taking it in turn to be on the outside of the huddle!
  • Able to dive to 550m and hold their breath for up to 22 minutes. This means they can reach food resources that other birds cannot.
  • They do not make nests. Instead the eggs and chicks sit on the parent’s feet to keep them off the ice.
  • Male penguins will sleep for 20-24 hours a day while incubating the egg, which conserves energy.
  • Have a short neck, tail and legs to reduce their surface area and prevent heat loss.

Looking for more Animal Adaptations in Cold Environments revision?

Polar Animal Adaptations Activity Pack

Polar Animal Adaptations Activity Pack

Polar Regions Lesson 1: Exploring Polar Regions

Polar Regions Lesson 1: Exploring Polar Regions

There you have it, animal adaptations in cold environments revision laid bare. You can find more GCSE Geography revision here!

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