White Falcon, White Wolf
Surviving Winter on Ellesmere Island


Snowy owl with chicks during the summer. In wintertime, survival on Ellesmere becomes even more difficult.

Winter on Ellesmere Island is a far cry from the tranquil summer seen in White Falcon, White Wolf. As the most Northern part of Canada and extending into the Arctic Circle, Ellesmere Island experiences extreme winters. Shrouded in continual darkness, temperatures reach beyond “cold” to a bitter -20 or -30 degrees Fahrenheit. To survive in these harsh conditions, animals must develop special adaptations to stay warm, conserve energy, and find food in a barren, frozen world.

To stay warm, most animals rely on their thick winter coats. Some of these coats can be quite “high tech.” Polar bears have a watertight layer of insulating hairs, protected by a layer of longer guard hairs on top.  Other Arctic animals rely on a similar layered coat where guard hairs act as a protective shield against the elements. Arctic foxes, for example, have furry feet. The hairs on the soles of their feet help them retain heat as they trot across the tundra.

The ultimate goal of all arctic animals is to lose as little body heat as possible. In comparison to their cousins, the red foxes, arctic foxes have several morphological differences. The first, of course, is their coat color. Their coats change to all white as the winter begins, then turn brown again the next summer to allow for seasonal camouflage. Arctic foxes also have a rounder body, shorter legs, shorter tails, shorter muzzles, and shorter ears. These are adaptations common to Arctic animals. The more compact the body, the less heat is lost.

Besides physical features like fur and body proportions, Arctic animals have highly specialized thermoregulatory systems. The metabolisms of Arctic animals can adjust seasonally so that animals conserve energy during the winter. Arctic animals have to be able to adjust their systems to cope with lower caloric intakes, or even to go without food for long periods of time. To do so, animals must make the most out of what they can find during the winter. The musk ox, like most Arctic animals, does what it can to fatten up during the summer when food is abundant. During the winter when food is less accessible and less nutritious, musk ox rely on these fat reserves to help them avoid starvation. It can be difficult to find food during the winter. Plants exist in a dormant state between the frozen ground and the blanket of snow. The air trapped between these two layers acts as insulation, and the plants and lichen living under the snow mostly avoid freezing temperatures. But any creature that eats this winter vegetation must first be able to get at it. Musk ox and caribou dig through the snow with their hooves and horns, or graze in windswept areas where food is exposed.

What it takes to survive on Ellesmere Island today may be vastly different in the years to come. Climate change and global warming are already altering the landscape. Massive ice shelves larger than the island of Manhattan, and thousands of years old, are breaking off from the northern edge of Arctic Canada. Glaciers are retreating, and the average winter temperature is increasing. Most animals on Ellesmere Island are so well adapted to life in the Arctic that any change in climate could be catastrophic. Only time can tell what will happen to the handful of specialized animals that call Ellesmere home during winter.

For further information on climate change and the Arctic, visit our list of additional web and print resources.

Photo © Mark Smith 2007

  • Liza

    Thanks for such a beautifully written piece about this amazing place. I can’t wait to watch.

  • Ken

    Once again I am reminded why Nature is the best show on television. Incredible episode!

  • Jasmine

    the snowy owls r adorable!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Joan

    I sea kayaked and hiked on Ellesmere thsi past summer. Thanks you for the film on the animals. It was beautiful. I wish it could convey more of the beauty of the light and the land and the silence…the beautiful silence.

  • Eddie

    Mor snowy owlets plz


  • IE Ries

    Next episode pairng: “White Owl, White Fox”

    (hint, hint!)

  • Darren Murphy

    An incredible episode. Wolf and Snowy Owl footage was spectacular!!!

  • William Thacker

    Your fine film shows Skuas, (South Polar or Great)? They don’t get within a thousand kilometers of Ellesmere. Were they not Jaegers The Gir normally hunts birds, not from a stoop, but mainly from a level chase. There were a number of such discrepancies. No doubt such realities are not allowed to get in the way of the “story”. Thank much, though the very fine footage. W T

  • ozzie

    i love nature i watch it every sunday at 8:00.i am writing a book called surviving elsemere based on this. please dont get mad!

  • Diana and Patrick Maculan

    We just finished watching this episode on PBS Nature… fantastic footage. What a pleasure to watch. A feast for the eyes, as is all of nature.

  • pat lynch

    Great show. Do any humans live year round on Ellesmere?

  • cece

    thay are so lovely!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!i love tham so much!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Deborah

    How fortunate we are to have access to such exquisite programming. Nature is a wonderful show. The Narration, accompanying music, the cinematography is all so incredible.

  • Miguel


  • Debbie

    Nature is by far one of the best shows on TV. I have such an enormous love & respect for all animals & look forward to watching Nature every Sunday. White Falcon White Wolf had incredible footage as is the norm for every episode. Thank you for allowing me to witness nature up close & personal every week!

  • Libbi layton

    Your photographers’ ability leaves me awestruck, and I’m too old to use that word casually. Thank you so much.

  • Janey Mackers

    Unbelievable, spectacular and a joy to watch. Thank you.

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