How Do Animals Survive the Coldest Winters? Five Impressive Ways Wildlife Adapts to Winter Conditions


Ptarmigans turn white in winter for camouflage. Red deer are ‘shrinking’ their stomachs and chamois are wandering down to lower altitudes. The common buzzard has a wonderful capacity to absorb energy from very poor food and the marmot takes sleepy-time to the extreme. Here are five amazing photographs of wildlife species that adapt to the cold of Tirol’s winter in their own ways.


When he is not working, Michael Gams is out exploring this... View author

The weather gets colder, days get shorter and leaves turn color and fall off the trees. Snow covers the ground. People live in warm houses and wear heavy coats outside. But what about animals? Winter in the mountains can be tough in the animal kingdom. Colder temperatures, shortened daylight hours, and lack of food can make it pretty rough for many animals to survive. So how do they do it? Here are five of Tirol’s iconic species with unique winter adaptation strategies to survive in the mountainous land of ice and snow, without toques and scarves, captured by Tirol wildlife photographer Fabio Hain.

Winter Fashion: The Ptarmigan

Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) Hafelekar Mountain Innsbruck (Foto: Fabio Hain)

Where’s the bird? The white coat helps the ptarmigan to hide in the snow at Hafelekar, high above Innsbruck.

What’s brown and black but white all winter? The ptarmigan is unique among birds for molting into snow-white plumes for half the year. This one was photographed by Fabio Hain on Hafelekar at Innsbruck’s Nordkette Range. During the last ice age, the species was far more widespread in continental Europe. The ptarmigan occupies rocky areas and Alpine meadows above timberline. It is up to 40 centimeters long, weighs up to half a kilogram and has a wingspan of 50 centimeters. The ptarmigan’s gray-brown summer garb turns into a much more reddish-brown color in the fall and transforms into a brilliant bright white each year when the snow begins to fall. By winter, all the summer brown feathers are lost and the bird is completely white, so it can blend in with the snow. A further molt in the spring precedes the breeding season and the bird returns to its summer plumage. The bird’s diet varies seasonally, too. Willows, birches, flowers, blooms and berries form the majority of the ptarmigan’s diet in the summer. Once fall and winter arrive in the region, the ptarmigan feeds on shoots and buds of crowberry and Alpine azalea.

Winter Diet: Red Deer

Red Deer (Cervus elaphus), Stubaital (Foto: Fabio Hain)

When food is scarce and weather is frightful, inactivity rather than activity is the way to go for this red deer in Stubai Valley.

During the winter season, grasses and dwarf shrubs are covered in snow and nearly inaccessible to northern-latitude herbivores. Thus, supplemental winter feeding is provided to deer herds in critical wintering areas by hunters. Primarily nocturnal in activity, they often rest around during the day and may actively forage during nights. Staying inactive conserves energy and nutrients. In order to adapt to the extreme situations that come with changing seasons, red deer have learned to “shrink” their gastrointestinal tract and extract nutrients from food more efficiently. The animals eat only half as much in the winter as in the summer and they can lower their heart rate to 30 – 40 beats a minute when required. Winter is a stressful time for red deer. Winter sports enthusiasts are strongly recommended to maintain distance and do not cause animals to change their behaviour.

Winter Scavenger: The Common Buzzard

Birds of prey like this common buzzard in Stubai Valley can often be seen near highways or main roads in the winter.

Birds of prey like this common buzzard in Stubai Valley can often be seen near highways or main roads in the winter.

During the winter season, when snow blankets any sources of sustenance, buzzards do scavenge and their primary staple is squashed mice and small mammals from the road. A great opportunist, it adapts well to winter as this broad-winged raptor has a wonderful capacity to absorb energy from very poor food. It is amazing how buzzards survive the winter without eating much. To attract a mate, the male performs a ritual aerial display before the beginning of spring, by mid-February. As many other birds of prey, buzzards are fiercely territorial and fights do break out if one strays onto another bird’s territory, but dominant displays of aggression will normally see off the interloper.

Winter Downward Shift: Chamois

Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) at Mieming

Downward shift: In winter, chamois, like this photographed in Mieming, can be found at lower altitudes.

The chamois is an agile and graceful animal, adapted to cold, highland terrain. During the summer months, herds of chamois wander Alpine meadows above 1800 meters. As winter approaches, there is a general downward shift to lower altitudes, where the chamois stay on steep slopes where snow does not accumulate, and sometimes may enter forested regions. While in the summer months chamois can feed on a relatively plentiful diet of herbs and flowers, during winter they turn to lichens, mosses, buds and shoots of shrubs, conifers and deciduous trees. Primarily diurnal in activity, they actively forage early in the mornings and at dusk. Contrary to roe and red deer, chamois do not shed those antlers in the winter. What they do have in common is that winter is a stressful time for chamois, too, as they try to conserve energy and nutrients. Thus, maintaining distance is particularly important during the winter.

Winter Sleepy-Time: The Alpine Marmot

Once the first snow falls, Alpine marmots like this photographed in Stubai Valley, will huddle next to each other and begin hibernation. (Foto: Fabio Hain)

Once the first snow falls, Alpine marmots like this photographed in Stubai Valley, will huddle next to each other and begin hibernation.

The nights are longer in the winter so most people do like to get some extra sleep, but some animals take sleepy-time to the extreme. As the summer begins to end, Alpine marmots will gather old stems and grass in their burrows in order to serve as bedding for their impending hibernation, which can take six to nine months. Hibernation is remarkably efficient during the winter; marmots burn almost nothing. Once the snow melts, marmots eat. And eat. And eat. Eating is important because they must double their mass during the year to ensure survival through the next winter. Once winter arrives, Alpine marmots will huddle next to each other and begin hibernation, a process that lowers their heart rate from 200 beats a minute to 20 beats a minute and breathing to two breaths per minute, which uses up their stored fat supplies slowly, and usually allows them to survive the winter.

Photo Credits: Fabio Hain //

You see, these animals are their own one-stop-shop to wilderness survival, and one can’t help but marvel at nature’s ingenuity.

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