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The Living Edens: The Lost World

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Nanuvut's wildlife and those of the rest of the Arctic are uniquely adapted to survive the harsh terrain and temperature extremes. Find out how arctic animals -- from the arctic fox to the polar bear -- have adapted to survive the rigors of their environment.

CARIBOU (Rangifer tarandus pearyi)
These land mammals represent their mythical flying cousins, the reindeer, although their migration takes place on the ground. Most caribou in Nunavut spend their summers in the tundra, heading to the southern forests during the colder winter months. Some caribou remain on the tundra during winter, while others travel hundreds of miles along the tundra in both seasons. The essential connection between the Inuit and caribou stems from the inimitable warmth of caribou fur and the sustenance the meat provides. Each hair on a caribou's fur is hollow and tightly packed, producing a warm yet lightweight coat. The Inuit which call caribou tuktu, traditionally relied on clothing made of this fur to keep from freezing in the harsh arctic weather.

ARCTIC FOX (Alopex lagopus)
Camouflage is an important trait for many arctic animals such as the arctic fox. On the tundra in winter, a red or brown pelt stands out for miles, making the arctic fox easy prey for its predators. Meanwhile, a white coat among the grass and other plant life creates another blatant target. Accordingly, the fox's fur changes from white in the winter to a brownish-gray in the summer. Its white coat is dense and well-insulated. In the summer days of plenty the arctic fox will dine on small mammals, fowl, eggs, and the arctic hare. During food shortages, especially when the fox is trapped on an island with no ice floe to aid its travel, the wily fox will rely on the food cached during the summer. The fox is an opportunist and will eat anything it can get, including scavenges from polar bear kills.

ARCTIC HARE (Lepus arcticus)
The arctic hare faces a number of challenges, including a limited food base, snow that covers its nourishment for two-thirds of the year, and predators that attack from all sides. Living in polar desert and semi-desert, hares have almost no ground cover and even less vegetation to feed on. Hares traveling in groups are unique to the Arctic, suggesting that the animals have learned over generations of behavioral change that predators are less likely to attack large groups of these small mammals. The group heads for safety in rocky crags and cliffs, out of the open air, where attacks from predatory birds and larger land mammals occur frequently.

SNOWY OWL (Nyctea scandiaca)
The snowy owl is predominantly white with some black or dark brown bands across its plumage. Smaller, hard feathers cover the owl's feet, minimizing the amount of surface area that touches the ground and thus the possibility for lowering body temperature. The snowy owl has another important trait of arctic animals, a low core temperature combined with a selective metabolism. This ensures that energy will not be wasted on heating the animal's body until absolutely needed. Snowy owls feed almost exclusively on lemmings, but will resort to catching small birds such as buntings. If the lemming population, arguably the determinant factor that keeps the entire food chain in balance, fluctuates too low, these birds will venture to southern latitudes for the winter.

PTARMIGAN (Lagopus lagopus)
Since ptarmigans are year-round tundra residents in Nunavut, they have evolved adaptations that enable them to survive all seasons. In winter, their summer russet-colored coats turn white. The feathers thicken, packing in new feathers tightly to increase the density -- and thus the warmth -- of the ptarmigan's coat. Ptarmigans also have ready-made snow boots made of hard, dense feathers that cover their feet in the winter. Their habit of burrowing into snow to sleep means that body heat is conserved and protected from the frigid arctic wind. Ptarmigans feed almost entirely on select buds and twigs (for example, from willow trees), and in Nunavut appear in two species, the Rock Ptarmigan and the Willow Ptarmigan.

ARCTIC CHAR (Salvelinus alpinus)
This widespread northernmost char species can thrive in both the open sea and freshwater lakes. The largest char in arctic lakes can weigh up to 10 pounds, while their more southern cousins reach a peak at 2 pounds. The char has a dark coloring with lighter spots, and can be golden, red, brown, yellow, or orange. This fish's skin will brighten, especially for males, during spawning season (which occurs once every other year) and fade for the rest of the year. Arctic char avoid shallow bodies of water that can freeze entirely, and meet to spawn in larger streams or inter-bay waterways that are deep enough to keep from freezing. The Inuit depend on this highly nutritional fish as a mainstay of their diet. The skin is often used to create watertight kayaking gear, and the bones are whittled down to create superior needles.

RINGED SEAL (Phoca hispida)
This smallest species of the Arctic seals derives its name from the ring-shaped spots on its skin. The favorite prey of polar bears, the ringed seal itself feeds upon the crustaceans and fish that dwell underneath the ice. The easily identifiable silver coat does not develop until a few months after birth, when the bright white calves have been weaned. The seal uses the arctic environment to its advantage, creating underwater dens in the snow and ice to bear and nurse its young. The females dig these dens, wallowing them out, and scratch air holes in the ice with their sharp claws. The Inuit have special bonds with these animals, and use all parts of the animal in their work. (Learn more about ringed seals in Arctic Oasis Adventure.)

NORTH ATLANTIC WALRUS (Obodenus rosmarus)
Walrus that inhabit the Arctic follow the typical sea mammal migration pattern: south, out of the reaches of iced-over lakes in the winter, and back north in the milder summer. They gracefully scour the shallow waters for clams, the mainstay of their diet: Adults eat up to 3,000 clams a day, sometimes snacking on fish, crabs, and snails. The animals' tusks not only serve to establish social dominance and are useful in fights, but can help these animals pull themselves out of the water. Their ungainly land movements belie their agile swimming capabilities, yet the purpose of their blubber is clear: insulation from the bitterly cold arctic waters. Even their whiskers are put to good use during searches for food along the sea floor. These sensitive appendages combine with powerful, sucker-like lips to make an efficient nourishment-gathering system. (Learn more about the walrus in Arctic Oasis Adventure.)

POLAR BEAR (Ursus maritimus)
Although the polar bear resembles its cousins of the southern latitudes, it spends so much time in or around the water that it is considered a marine mammal. This enormous animal can measure from 6 to nearly 10 feet, and weigh over 1,000 pounds for males and 550 pounds for females. Unlike most arctic animals, the white fur of the polar bear is a permanent fixture, and does not change seasonally. In summer, it comes inland and feeds off of berries, small mammals, and any birds it can find. The polar bear's hunting abilities shine in winter, when it can sniff out seals even when a thick layer of ice separates it from its favorite meal. The bear's thick layer of blubber keeps it buoyant and makes it a powerful, tireless swimmer, another advantage for an animal that must keep up with agile, swift-swimming seals. Perhaps its most interesting adaptation is the watertight coat that the outer hairs form over the inner layers of the bear's fur. This keeps it dry and safe from freezing when it leaves the comparably warm water to go on land when it is exposed to the frigid air. (Learn more about polar bears in Arctic Oasis Adventure.)

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Eco Explorer
Go on adventure to the Arctic.

Arctic Adventure
Discover the animals of the region.

Filming Arctic Oasis
Go behind the scenes with the producer.

For Teachers
Students will learn about the Inuit.

Find out more about the Arctic.

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