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Photo of caribou

Photo: Northern Images / Wayne Sawchuk


The word boreal derives from Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind. The north wind does indeed blow bitterly in these woods, and all living things that remain in the boreal year-round have evolved ways to cope with winter's deep snows and extreme cold. Caribou, for example, are remarkably well adapted to life in the far north. Caribou hooves have a snowshoe-like spread that is much wider than any member of the deer family; under each hoof is a pad that thins in winter, making the hoof sharp-edged for traction on ice. Their coats provide such efficient insulation that they remain warm until temperatures plummet below -70 F. Caribou are also able to smell and locate lichens beneath the snow and can subsist on this nutrient-poor food for some time.

Other animals have developed equally interesting adaptations to the boreal winter. Many, including ptarmigan (a north-woods grouse), wolves, lynx and, of course, snowshoe hares, have snowshoe-like feet. Some use the boreal's dry, feather-light snow for shelter. (Tiny pockets of air form between the crystalline flakes, providing excellent insulation.) Ptarmigan burrow deep into the snowpack and make themselves cozy sleeping chambers; snowshoe hares find shelter underneath the natural snow tents that form when heavy snowfall weighs down low-lying tree branches. And otters, with short legs and smooth bellies, travel on ice and snow-covered lakes and rivers using a method that has to be as fun as it is effective. A few quick hops, a bellyflop and they sled their way along: one-two-three-sliiiiide, one-two-three-sliiiiide....

last revised 7/20/2004

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