Snow Day! 8 Surprisingly Snow-Loving Animals

From making snowballs to refrigerating food, these animals know what to do with the white stuff.

It might be the middle of a scorching summer in Australia, but in the northern hemisphere right now it's prime time for adorable animals playing in the snow.

It made us wonder: aside from the obvious penguins and polar bears, what are some surprising animals that love or can’t do without the snow and ice?

JAPANESE MACAQUES

These monkeys have earned their nickname of “snow monkeys.” They’re well adapted to Japan’s hot summers and cold winters, and many of them—especially the youngsters—really enjoy the winter snow, says Rafaela Sayuri Takeshita, a Ph.D student at Kyoto University’s Primate Research Institute, by email.

They even make snowballs, though their anatomy doesn’t allow an overhand pitch, says Fred Bercovitch, a wildlife biologist at Kyoto University, via email.

Still, they carry the snowballs around and find other ways to play.

“I’ve observed many juveniles trying to steal each other’s snowballs,” Takeshita says.

And after a game of cold-weather keep-away, how about a soothing soak in the hot springs? These monkeys are famous for their winter visits to the hot-springs “spa.” (See video: Meditative Monkeys Hang Out in Hot Springs)

A Japanese macaque on Hokkaido Island, Japan, plays with a snowball.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ARCO IMAGES GMBH, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

ICE WORMS AND ROTIFERS

Like Elsa in Frozen, the cold never bothered an ice worm. These squiggly black annelids, just centimetres long, are one of only two types of animals that live inside glaciers. 

The other is a microscopic animal called a bdelloid rotifer, two species of which were discovered in Icelandic glaciers by biologist Daniel Shain at Rutgers University in Camden.

“These temperate, maritime glaciers maintain a temp of 32 Fahrenheit,” Shain says. That’s just warm enough that the ice worms and rotifers don’t freeze.

Ice worms, like this one in Alaska, are one of only two animals that lives inside glaciers.
 PHOTOGRAPH BY ACCENT ALASKA, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

The rotifers also don’t have sex. This females-only species is thought to have been reproducing asexually for about 40 million years. They “steal” genes from the organisms they eat and integrate them into their own genome to maintain the genetic diversity that sexual reproduction normally provides, Shain says. 

They are some tough ladies, too. Shain says samples of the Icelandic rotifers were frozen at -80 degrees Fahrenheit for weeks and recovered just fine. 

VOLES, MICE, SHREWS

“Snow is an exceptionally good insulator,” and underneath it animals can burrow into a warm, humid space called the subnivean zone—even in the far frozen north, says Greg Breed, an ecologist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, via email.

Voles, mice, and shrews dig nests and tunnels with ventilation shafts to keep the oxygen flowing, and these subterranean winter homes benefit from a snow cover that buffers them from sub-zero temperatures and predators.

In fact, the snow actually increases their survival rates, Breed says, since they’re relatively safe and snug inside. (Related: A Frog that Freezes and Thaws and Other Ways Animals Cope with Cold)

Snow can make it easier for wolves, like this grey wolf at the International Wolf Center in northern Minnesota, to capture and store weaker prey.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE

WOLVES

Not only is it fun to play in, but deep winter snow is good for the diet of cold-climate wolves like the grey wolf, says Breed.

Deep snow in mid-winter means weaker prey species are more easily trapped, plus “cold and snow also slows decomposition of kills, and kills can be cached for weeks or months without rotting,” Breed says.

Arctic wolves, though, have to make sure the tables aren’t turned on them. This far-north subspecies of the grey wolf turns white in the winter as camouflage, so it doesn’t become a polar bear’s lunch.

Northern butterfly species that don’t migrate, such as this Camberwell Beauty butterfly on an inula flower, may hibernate directly under the snow.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID CHAPMAN, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

BUTTERFLIES

Nothing says “spring” like a butterfly, but those that stick to their northern homes in winter also take advantage of the insulating effect of snow. Some butterflies hibernate directly beneath the snow cover, which provides a relatively warm, humid space, keeping them from freezing or dehydrating during a suspended animation called diapause.

Humans just call that “binge-watching.”

Header image: Baby snow monkey plays with snow at a hot spring in Nagano, Japan. IMAGE VIA SHUTTERSTOCK.

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