- December 21, 2022 - Biodôme : Animal portrait
Chionophiles, chioneuphores or chionophobes?
Wind, snow, cold, dehydration, lack of shelter, scarcity of food… In the animal world, the struggle for survival goes on day after day, and winter makes it that much more difficult. From an ecological point of view, animals have no choice but to acclimatize to changing conditions in order to survive.
Winter or summer type?
Certain animals seem to love snowy environments – like otters, who run up snow slopes and slide down on their bellies like little kids! Scientists have even discovered that, in black-capped chickadees, some individuals from the same family migrate south while others remain in Québec throughout the year. What about you – do you like winter? Are you a chionophile, a chioneuphore or a chionophobe?
Animals who have all the adaptations needed to get through the winter are chionophiles (from the Greek chion, meaning snow, and phile, lover). They can be found geographically in every region that’s covered with snow for part of the year. That’s the case with the ermine, the hare, the ptarmigan and the lemming. Of those, only the lemming doesn’t develop a white coat during the colder months, an adaptation that ensures anonymity and a better chance of survival. If, in your case, you enjoy the outdoors, snowshoeing, skiing, skating, hiking in a forest or shoveling your balcony after a snowfall, you’re the ptarmigan type – you’re a chionophile.
Animals that are resistant to winter and can live with it, but without having all the adaptations necessary for surviving in it, are chioneuphores (who tolerate snow). They get the most they can out of their environment and happily sink into the snow to keep themselves warm, taking shelter under the lower branches of conifers or even spending much of the winter under the snow. These animals sometimes change habitat during the coldest months and can see their populations decline dramatically if the climate grows too severe. Moles, voles and red foxes are part of this group. To illustrate the difference between a chionophile and a chioneuphore, let’s take two types of fox: the Arctic fox and the red fox. The Arctic fox has such dense fur that it doesn’t begin to shiver until the temperature reaches -45 C: it’s a chionophile. The red fox, meanwhile, begins to shiver at -13 C: that’s a chioneuphore. If you personally accept winter because you know how to make compromises but still like to bundle up in the warmth of your house, staying toasty with little slow-cooked dishes; if you prefer walking out the door when temperatures grow milder, you’re the vole type: you’re a chioneuphore.
Hating the winter
Chionophobes are animals that are incapable of adapting to climate conditions produced by winter. For them, two choices are possible, hibernating or migrating. In the first case the animal will have built up reserves in the form of fat and will sleep comfortably sheltered in a burrow, like groundhogs or chipmunks. Otherwise, the animal undertakes a migration in search of the climate that best suits it. Think of the monarch butterfly, the swallow or the snow goose. If you hate winter to the extent that you prefer Cuban beaches to the snowy panoramas of Québec, you’re a chionophobe. (The “snowbird” is a particular species of chionophobe that opts for Florida as soon as winter arrives).
Homo sapiens: a tropical animal
Humans are essentially a tropical species, poorly equipped to deal with even a slight degree of cold. Naked, a human being begins to experience a degree of discomfort as soon as the temperature drops below 25°C. Physiological responses quickly kick in at that point: skin hair muscles contract, and we get goosebumps! Circulating blood at the skin surface and in the extremities moves to the central part of the body, to minimize heat loss. In fact, our ability to withstand winter is tied entirely to our behavioral adaptations: we cover ourselves with clothing and heat the shelters we’ve built. And yet, a number of indigenous societies have evolved in Siberian climates. Those humans have developed a tolerance to the harshness of winter: for them that’s how nature works! Heat or cold, everything is just a question of perception. So what about you: chionophile, chioneuphore or chionophobe?