Tundra environments are cold regions with hindered tree growth and rolling ground. It is a harsh habitat not suitable for many forms of life. The animals that live in the tundra have evolved to adapt to this region in various ways. They mainly have to be able to prevent heat loss and stay warm enough not to freeze to death, while finding enough food.
12 Animals that Live in the Tundra
Imagine long stretches of open land where the only vegetation is small shrubs, sedge, grasses, moss and lichen. There are three types of tundra worldwide: Arctic tundra, Antarctic tundra, and alpine tundra that occur above mountain treelines.
Read on for more information about 12 animals you can find in the tundra and how they’ve adapted to their environment.
1. Snow leopard
Scientific name: Panthera uncia
Snow leopards live in high mountainous areas, including the Himalaya mountain range in Asia. They have multiple adaptations to help them survive the cold, deep snow, and rocky terrain of their habitat. Having rounded ears and fur on the undersides of their paws to helps to minimize heat loss. Their wide paws also act like snow-shoes and help them stay on top of the snow, while the fur helps with grip on rocky terrain.
They have large chests and deep nasal cavities that may aid them in getting more oxygen from the thin air of high altitudes. It is also believe they may compensate for less oxygen by just breathing harder.
The insides of their noses are also enlarged, allowing them to warm the cold air before taking it into their lungs. Additionally, they have dense body hair with underfur, and an extra thick tail they can wrap around their bodies when resting.
2. Musk ox
Scientific name: Ovibos moschatus
This hoofed mammal is one of the largest you can find in the Arctic tundra. The “musk” in their name comes from the strong odor they emit to attract females during the mating season. They grow between 4.4 and 8.2 feet long and weigh 400 to 900 pounds. However, their short legs combined with their large size are very efficient in storing heat and preventing heat loss.
Musk ox also have a dense coat that hangs almost to the ground that keeps them well insulated. During the winter they move to higher elevations where the snow cover isn’t as deep. This reduces the amount of energy they would have to expend walking through deep snow, and makes it easier to push the snow aside to forage on the grasses beneath.
3. Bald eagle
Scientific name: Haliaeetus leucocephalus
Bald eagles are found in plenty of different habitats, including tundra, and are powerful birds of prey. Their large talons, hooked beak, and excellent eyesight help them easily find, catch, and eat their prey. Bald eagles may hunt together in groups to help minimize energy output, and will gorge on food to calorie-load quickly. To conserve energy they will seek shelter that helps them maintain body heat (like thicket or conifer trees) and become more sedentary.
They also have an interesting way of controlling their body temperature. A “counter-current” heat exchange occurs in their body which warms the blood flowing to their core and cools the blood flowing to their feet. The warm blood helps them prevent frostbite and the cool blood at their feet prevents heat loss.
4. Snowy owl
Scientific name: Bubo scandiacus
Another bird that can live on the tundra is the snowy owl. Snowy owls uses their nearly all white plumage to blend into the snow so predators can’t spot them. Both sexes have flecks of black in their plumage, but males tend to have less black marks while females have more. From a distance, they can sit on the ground and appear as a rock or lump of snow.
Snow owl population is tied closely to the availability of another tundra dwelling animal, the lemming. While they will eat other small mammals, the lemming is their main food source on the tundra.
These owls are native to the Arctic regions of North America and can grow between 2.1 and 2.4 feet long. They sometimes move south into the northern United States during “irruption years”, giving bird watchers a chance to spot these unique owls.
Scientific name: Canis lupus familiaris
Although huskies originate from Siberia, plenty of these species are in North America today. They are a superior species of sled dogs and have dominated sled racing competitions in Alaska for many years.
These dogs are well adapted to tundra climates with their endurance and ability to survive longer periods without much food. They have plenty of ways to keep themselves warm, including a thick double coat with a water-resistant overcoat. They also have long tails they wrap around their faces when they sleep to protect their face and nose from the cold.
The lemming is a member of the rodent family that has a rounded shape, short tail, small ears and a flattened claw on the first digit of their front feet that helps them dig through snow. Lemmings live only in the Northern Hemisphere in or near the Arctic, and are one of the smallest mammals in the tundra habitat.
Their body size helps them adapt to the cold since their short, stocky stature prevents heat loss and helps them conserve energy. These solitary animals will stay active throughout the winter and not hibernate. They are an important prey species for larger arctic animals such as the snowy owl and arctic fox.
7. Arctic bumblebee
Scientific name: Bombus polaris
Yes, insects do live in the tundra! The Arctic bumblebee is a large bee, with queens growing around 0.85 inches and worker bees between 0.39 and 0.61 inches. Their larger size helps them adapt to the cold climate since they can take in more energy to heat up their body and retain it for longer. These bees also have dense hair on their body that prevents heat loss and will generate heat by using their flight muscles.
8. Arctic mosquitoes
Scientific name: Aedes nigripes
Arctic mosquitoes are another insect species with interesting ways to adapt to cold climates. To prevent themselves from freezing, they replace the fluids in their bodies with glycerol, which acts as a natural antifreeze. You can typically find these mosquitoes by shallow tundra ponds where they lay their eggs. Their eggs can survive freezing in the winter to thaw out in the spring and hatch into larvae.
9. Arctic fox
Scientific name: Vulpes lagopus
Arctic foxes have fascinating capabilities to endure temperatures as low as -94 degrees Fahrenheit. They have thick fur as insulation and short legs, muzzles, and ears to prevent heat loss. Even their feet are covered in fur! They also wrap their long bushy tails around themselves like a blanket when sleeping.
These foxes don’t hibernate but live in burrows that have extensive tunnel systems. Their fur also changes colors with the seasons to help them camouflage. In the winter, their fur is thick and white, while in the summer, they are brown.
Scientific name: Rangifer tarandus
Caribou, also called reindeer, are classic animals associated with winter and Christmas. You can find these animals in Alaska and the northern parts of Canada. To stay warm, they have two layers of fur and compact bodies to prevent heat loss.
During the winter they will lower their metabolism for energy conservation. Their muzzles are also covered with short hairs, allowing them to push the snow aside when sniffing and finding food.
11. Alaska blackfish
Scientific name: Dallia pectoralis
The Alaska blackfish is a small and tough fish that sometimes looks like a bulldog with fins. These bottom-dwelling fish have a unique ability to breathe air through a modified esophagus. It lets them survive in waters with low oxygen levels and when ponds turn into muck puddles during low rains. They also produce a chemical in their body that lowers the freezing point of their body fluids to survive in cold conditions.
12. Polar bears
Scientific name: Ursus maritimus
When you think of animals in the tundra, it’s hard not to add polar bears to the list. They are an iconic species of this habitat and live primarily in the Arctic Circle. These bears have a thick layer of blubber under their skin that they accumulate during the summer.
Although their fur looks white, it’s actually hollow and clear, allowing them to reflect white light and absorb heat from the sunlight through their black skin underneath. Unfortunately, they are an endangered species and their habitat remains threatened due to global warming.