31. Beluga whales are one of the most vocal of all whales.
Beluga whales are stocky cetaceans found in the Arctic and Subarctic seas. They’re also known as white whales due to their color. This feature, along with their unique shape, makes them very distinguishable from other whales. Their white shade also helps them to blend in with their icy habitats. They’re only about 13 to 20 feet long, so they’re also pretty small compared to other whales in the ocean. Beluga whales can dive 700 meters below the sea surface despite being slow swimmers. The dorsal fin on beluga whales is absent, which reduces surface area and thus preserves body heat. In addition, beluga whales have a substantial amount of blubber, which helps them survive in the freezing waters. Beluga whales generally live in small groups known as pods and are very vocal when communicating. When the sea freezes over in the Arctic Ocean, the whales will swim south to slightly warmer waters to continue eating fish. Beluga whales have an echolocation organ, known as the melon, at the front of their heads, which helps them find blowholes under sheet ice while hunting and swimming under extensive ice sheets. They survive on a diet of fish, crustaceans, and invertebrates.
30. Snowy white Arctic foxes live directly in the open ice and snow.
This cute and cuddly animal is one of the most adaptable creatures in the Arctic. Also known as a polar fox, the arctic fox is found throughout the Arctic regions in the Northern Hemisphere. It can survive in temperatures as low as -58 degrees Fahrenheit. Their round body, short muzzle, and small ears reduce body surface area and, consequently, exposure to extreme cold. This fox has furry paws and a keen sense of hearing helps it easily walk on the snow and hunt for prey. Their white fur also makes it very difficult to be spotted, both by prey and other predators in the ice and snow. When winter turns into spring, and the ice melts a little, the fur also changes to a more brown or gray color in summer to blend in with their surroundings.
29. Cup corals extend beautiful translucent tentacles at night.
It’s no surprise that you’ll find this kind of coral in the Arctic waters and near Alaska. That’s because they can live as far down as where hydrothermal vents exist, feeding off the minerals being spewed into the water. They stick their arms out to catch bacteria and other microbes in the water that they use as a food supply at night. They’re not very large, but they do live together in small clusters. Cup corals lack any symbiotic algae and are, therefore, not dependent on photosynthesis for food production. They are essential components to bottom marine ecosystems. These things provide a complex habitat structure that is important to invertebrates, fish, and other deep-sea life. Their slow growth rates, longevity, and limited habitat make corals more vulnerable to the adverse impact of oil and gas exploration activities. Increasing ocean acidification due to climate change is also a threat.
28. Colorful sea anemones are situated on the rocks of the coldest waters.
Sea anemones are beautiful animals that are closely related to jellyfish and corals. There are many varieties of sea anemones that are present in the Bering Sea. You may be used to seeing the tropical kinds, but the ones in the frigid waters are just as pretty. The majority of sea anemones are attached to rocks, waiting for food to happen, while others are actually mobile. However, burrowing anemones bury themselves in sand, mud, or gravel on the seafloor. Many people mistake sea anemones for plants since they’re named after a flower, but they’re predatory animals. All sea anemones have stinging cells that are used to capture prey and are used to protect themselves against predators.
27. Basket stars have a five-pointed body with multiple arms.
They look kind of creepy, but they’re pretty harmless; to humans, anyway. They’re a form of brittle star, which use their flexible arms to crawl across the ocean. This feature is much different from starfish, which have lots of little tubes on their appendages’ bottoms to move them around. Basket stars have a five-pointed body, each with an arm. Each arm may have two main branches, with many smaller ones extending from each of the bigger ones. In all, one arm may be up to a couple of feet long. Basket stars live in deep-sea habitats and can live up to about 35 years. The basket star feeds by anchoring itself to the seafloor and extending its arms into the current, forming a wide basket. Small shellfish, jellyfish, and other critters that float with the current will actually flow right into the basket. The barbs on the ends of the sub-branches trap the prey, encase it in strands of mucus, then pull it down to the basket star’s mouth.
26. Hermit crabs live in the Bering Sea — and are scavengers.
You’ve probably seen their smaller cousins in pet stores with cutely decorated shells. These crabs are similar; only they get a lot bigger. They have ten legs, with two underdeveloped pairs residing inside the shell to carry it along with them. The front two legs are equipped with large claws for defense and catching prey, such as fish. However, by large, they are omnivorous scavengers, eating whatever they can find. They mostly live around rocky outcroppings to maintain their diver diet. Hermit crabs are crustaceans, which means they are related to crabs, lobsters, and shrimp. These crabs are scavengers, eating dead animals and whatever else they can find. Hermit crabs may be covered with short sensory hairs that are used for smell and taste.
25. The harp seal gets its common name from the harp-shaped markings on its back.
You’re used to seeing the fluffy white babies of these seals, but the adults are ruthless predators of the ocean. They can grow up to 5 to 7 feet long and weigh more than 250 pounds. These seals need all that blubber to keep them warm because they dive so deep for food. They can dive as deep as 500 meters and can hold their breath for up to twenty minutes. That’s definitely impressive, especially with how cold those waters can get. They are foraging predators that eat several dozen species of bony fishes and invertebrates. Harp seals can live for an estimated 30 years and are born with long white fur that helps them absorb sunlight and stay warm while still developing blubber. Harp seals prefer shallow water but can dive as deep as 1,312 feet.
24. Swiftia coral are animals closely related to sea anemones and jellyfish.
The Swiftia coral belongs to a coral family called octocoral, which is a gathering of colonial polyps in an 8-fold symmetry. They are cold corals, which means that they can survive in cold waters rather than their tropical counterparts. Its location makes it a popular choice of residence for salmon as well as mussels. One would think this would create a great symbiotic relationship, but these animals’ presence causes harm to the coral. Their feces settle on the coral and cause blooms of algae that can damage the coral. Soft corals may feed during the night or day. They use their nematocysts, stinging cells, sting passing plankton, or other small organisms to pass to their mouth.
23. The popular Coca-Cola Muscat, polar bears, live in some of the world’s coldest waters.
The polar bear is fully equipped for Arctic life, having multiple defenses against the ravages of its harsh, icy habitat. A thick coat of long, heavy, white fur helps them blend in with their surroundings besides keeping them warm by trapping a layer of insulating air. Their oily fur keeps moisture at bay and protects it from frigid waters. A layer of blubber directly below provides insulation from the biting cold air. Polar bears are one of the most carnivorous animals on the planet. Its diet consists of 90% meat, which is understandable, given that there isn’t much of anything else on the Arctic Circle. Born on land, they spend most of their adult life in the water, swimming around to catch fish and seals. They can weigh anywhere between 500 to 1000 pounds and use most of that weight as insulation against frigid temperatures. Due to climate change, they have been considered a vulnerable species since the ice caps are getting smaller and smaller each year.
22. The Canada lynx may look like a slightly larger version of your housecat.
They’re confused with bobcats all the time, but the lynx is much larger. Two defining features to tell them apart are that lynxes have longer tufts on their ears and don’t have black tails with white underneath. Lynxes are also known for having enormous feet, almost like snowshoes. The large foot pads help them stay on top of the snow to make it easier for them to catch prey, such as rabbits and other rodents. Despite their long legs, the Canadian lynx cannot run fast. It prefers to lie in wait for prey, then pounces when the time is right. They are excellent night hunters. Canadian lynx primarily hunt snowshoe hares. However, if they cannot find any hares, they will prey on small mammals, birds, and sometimes even large animals like caribou.
21. Snowshoe hares’ fur can be a different color depending on the season.
For the Canada lynx, that is. These hares are the primary food source for the lynx. They live as far north as the Arctic Ocean, which means that it needs a lot of help to stay warm. Thankfully, it has large feet, just like the lynx, that work like snowshoes. Their fur’s coloring is also supposed to help keep them camouflaged from predators, but it’s not foolproof. During the winter, snowshoe hares are white, which allows them to blend in with the snow. When the seasons change to spring and summer, snowshoe hares turn reddish-brown. This notion helps them camouflage with dirt and rocks. Snowshoe hares can be seen rummaging among the brush. They consume mostly plants, enjoying grasses, flowers, and new growth from trees. As nocturnal animals, they are more likely to be seen at dawn and dusk. They have acute hearing and can detect predators. When they sense danger, hares use their big feet to flee at the first sight.
20. Caribou, also known as reindeer, are present in the coldest regions.
Also known as reindeer, they’re the only member of the deer family with both the males and females grow antlers. They have a velveteen cover that is lost every spring so that the antlers can grow, and then the cover returns. The fur of caribou also varies between them, as well as from season to season, and is dependent on the subspecies of caribou. These caribou have intricate circulatory systems that minimize heat loss of the blood so that they can maintain stable body temperature. The caribou has a short, stocky body that conserves heat, but its legs are extended to help it move through the deep snow. Its winter coat provides insulation from the cold, and its muzzle and tail are short and covered in hair. The caribou’s hooves are large and hollowed out, making a handy tool for scooping up lichen, an important food source, under the snow.
19. Sometimes mistaken for a killer whale or orca, a Dall’s porpoise inhabits subarctic temperature waters.
Because of the coloring of the Dall’s porpoise, it is sometimes confused for an orca. However, a closer look will tell you the difference. Its head is a different shape and much smaller than that of a killer whale. Dall’s porpoise is also a lot smaller than an orca overall, but it can still be easy to confuse the two. Dall’s porpoises have been seen in groups ranging between 10 to 20 individuals, and when groups merge, several thousand porpoises can be seen swimming together. These marine mammals like to hunt in large groups and are often seen associating with Pacific white-sided dolphins or pilot whales. Dall’s porpoises are a fast-swimming species. It mostly eats small fish and octopuses and may consume krill on occasion. They generally feed at night and usually eat about 28 to 30 pounds of food every day. They serve as prey to killer whales and great white sharks and live in pods that are anywhere between two and twelve in number.
18. Spiny and equipped with pinchers, king crabs are not a pleasant sight.
King crabs are a sizeable marine invertebrate that belongs to the group of decapod crustaceans. King crabs are also called stone crabs because of their appearance. Although most king crab species are found in warm waters in the Southern Hemisphere, a few species, such as Alaskan king crabs, inhabit cold, frigid waters. Scientists have approximated that there are at least 40 known species of king crab. The most commonly found type is the golden king crab, which can be pretty big. Golden king crabs can weigh about 5 to 8 pounds. Their shell is distinctive from the rest, as its back as a fan-shaped “tail” tucked underneath the bottom of the shell. It’s definitely one of the most popular crabs that Alaskan trawlers go after. King crabs are carnivores and have a diet based on clams, mussels, snails, sea stars, and sea urchins. Natural enemies of king crabs are fish such as Pacific cod, halibut, octopuses, and sea otters.
17. Humpback whales are considered the friendliest giant of the sea.
Humpback whales are large mammals on the planet, ranging in size from 39 to 52 feet. It became popular among whale watchers for its breaching behavior, which leaves pretty big splashes. Humpback whales don’t usually have a hump on their backs, but the name comes from the large hump that forms when they arch their backs before making a deep dive into the ocean. They use sonar to communicate with each other, singing songs that can sometimes last up to 20 minutes. These whales migrate around the planet’s oceans, but they prefer it pretty cold where their primary food source is: fish. They mostly consume small fish, krill, and plankton. To eat prey, they take large gulps of water. They only move to tropical waters to breed and give birth to their young. Humpbacks typically travel alone or in small groups, called pods, consisting of two or three whales.
16. Furry and friendly sea otters live in some of the world’s coldest waters.
Sea otters are members of the weasel family, which no one considers as cute as these guys. They can weigh up to 99 pounds and are much larger than people think they are. These sea otters have thick coats of fur to keep them warm and are pretty dense, making them mostly waterproof. They dive to the ocean floors to gather up mollusks, sea urchins, and other crustaceans. Surprisingly, an otter must consume 25 percent of its body weight in prey each day to stay alive. Sea otters spend approximately nine to twelve hours a day hunting. They eat many kinds of invertebrates, including sea urchins, abalone, clams, crabs, snails, squid, and octopuses. What makes them unique is that they’re capable of using tools to eat. After hunting on the seafloor, sea otters return to the surface to eat. Floating on its back and using its chest as a table, a sea otter often uses a rock to crack open its prey, especially if dinner is a crab, clam, or mussel.
15. Sure-footed horned beasts, called dall sheep live in subarctic climates.
The Dall sheep, also called the thin-horn sheep, comes in a wide range of colors and has curved brown horns. They live among the mountain ranges of Alaska, as well as regions of British Columbia. These beasts are found in mostly dry areas, feasting on plants and grasses. Their hooves make it perfect for them to escape from predators as they can easily climb rugged ground to get away. Their horns take up to eight years to grow and are composed of keratin, the same material as our fingernails. The age of the sheep can be calculated from the number of growth rings on their horns. They also use their horns for defensive purposes and have been known to butt grey wolves off cliffs. Their diet consists of mostly grasses, sedges, dwarf willows, and mosses. They also have a lot of predators and threats, including wolves, coyotes, and bears.
Bald eagles are one of the larger raptor birds in North America. It is a sea eagle, meaning that it hunts and eats mostly fish as part of its diet. Because of its size, it builds one of the biggest nests of any North American bird, spanning up to 8 feet wide. These eagles are called bald because the old meaning of the word meant “white-headed.” Unfortunately, the name stuck despite the purpose of the term changing over the years. It’s a little challenging to tell the sexes apart since the plumage is precisely the same; however, the females are slightly larger than the males. Bald eagles can reach great heights when flying. Using thermal convention currents, they can climb up to 10,000 feet in the air. They can soar for hours using these currents. When cruising, they can fly about 40 miles per hour.
13. Cute, little puffins can spend up to eight months on the waves.
Puffins are actually one of the three bird species of auks and are often dubbed sea parrots. They are specifically adapted to living on the open sea. They can spend up to eight months on the waves, never touching land as they sleep, eat, and drink out at sea. Waterproof feathers allow them to stay warm as they float at the ocean’s surface or swim underwater. Diving as deep as 200 feet, they swim by flapping their wings as if flying through the water and using their feet to steer. They obtain their meals by diving into the water and catching small fish, including herring, capelin, and sand eels. They supplement their meals by drinking salt water. These birds can swim just as well as they can fly, as their feathers are very adaptive for the water. They have a very stock build, providing them warmth as they dive into cold waters. Their bills are only a bright orange during mating season, and then they are shed to leave behind a duller beak.
12. The Inuit name for the musk ox is umingmak, meaning “the bearded one.”
The musk ox is found primarily in Arctic Canada and Greenland. It derives its name from the strong odor emitted by males during the mating season. However, despite the name, they are more closely related to sheep and goats than to actual oxen. Musk oxen feed on roots and mosses of the tundra and dig for food with their hooves when the ground is covered with snow and ice. Their dark fur — thick, long, and shaggy — covers its entire body providing insulation from the extreme cold. The hair on its body hangs almost to the ground forming a warm tent of sorts. The hollow hairs in the fur conserve body heat, keeping them warm in the extreme cold. Both the males and females have horns to protect their herd and their young against predators. The males are generally larger, but all play their part to keep everyone safe. Musk oxen are typically found in groups, huddling together for warmth and protection. In winter, instead of migrating south, they climb to higher elevations to avoid the deep snow and try to thrive on what grasses they can find.
11. Hedwig, the deliverer, is not your typical snow owl.
Don’t expect to get any mail from a magical school from these guys any time soon. They’re native to the Arctic regions and nest in the ground where it’s warmer. On a good day, they’ll hunt rodents and waterfowl for meals; on a not-so-good day, they’ll resort to eating carrion. Like all owls, they swallow their meals whole, where their stomach juices digest their meals. Snow owls will eat various food, including Arctic hares, mice, ducks, and seabirds. The indigestible parts are regurgitated in pellets that are considered a treasure trove by owl enthusiasts. Their feet are also covered with feathers, like fluffy slippers that provide ample insulation for the cold Arctic climate. Their incredible wingspan is between four to five feet on average. These mighty wings help them silently sneak up on or accelerate after prey. The Arctic summer forces snowy owls to hunt by daylight. Unlike most owls that are nocturnal, snowy owls are diurnal, which means they hunt during the day.
10. Roughly 172,000 narwhals are swimming in the Arctic today.
A narwhal is a toothed whale and is closely related to dolphins, porpoises, and orcas. They live and travel in pods that range in size from a few narwhals to several hundred individuals, but the congregations can be in the thousands in the summertime. Females, young, and immature males live together, and adult males live in their own pods. They have a famous tusk that is actually a specialized tooth that protrudes out of the left lip, and in rare cases, a narwhal can have two. While all males have tusks, only 15 percent of females have a tusk. The longest tusks can reach over eight feet long. Understanding the function of the tusk is an ongoing area of investigation. One of the narwhal’s unique talents is diving. They are some of the deepest diving whales, with a record dive of over a mile deep! They are also excellent at conserving oxygen as their muscles are built to minimize oxygen use and simultaneously carry large amounts of oxygen. Interestingly, during the deepest dives, a narwhal can shut off oxygen flow to unessential organs and instead divert it to where it is needed most.
9. Antarctic ice fish have blood with built-in antifreeze.
In oxygen-rich Antarctic waters, ice fish can survive and thrive in freezing waters. They have no hemoglobin, which is the oxygen-carrying protein that makes red blood cells red. In the absence of hemoglobin, the gills of ice fish appear white. The ice fish instead have special blood that contains proteins that act like antifreeze. The ice fish usually have ice crystals inside their bodies, and the special proteins work to ensure that the crystals do not grow in size. Surprisingly, researchers have found that the ice crystals do not go away during the warmer summer months, which is one of the implications of living below the ice. This unique antifreeze protein is also found in a group of more than 120 fish that live in the Southern Ocean.
Arctic cod are a rare breed that is able to live in water that is cooler than the freezing point of blood. Although most commonly associated with ice, such as in the White Sea, Arctic cod is also present in ice-free nearshore waters in Alaska. Similar to Antarctic ice fish, Arctic cod have an antifreeze protein that keeps their blood flowing even in the coldest of waters. Arctic cod are critical players in the Arctic food web. They contribute by eating small crustaceans, such as amphipods and copepods. In turn, Arctic Cod are food for seabirds and many marine mammals. Due to the unpredictable conditions, Arctic cod have early maturity, rapid growth, production of large numbers of offspring, and a shorter life span.
7. Orcas can be found in both the Arctic and the Southern Oceans.
Orcas, also known as killer whales, tend to stay put in their distinctive ecosystems. There are different characteristics of the groups, or pods, in various locations. Although all orcas are considered the same species, some thought they might be other species among the pods in Antarctica or at least subspecies. They are the largest of the dolphins and powerful predators. Uniquely, orcas can travel in pods of up to 40 related individuals. These traveling pods act like wolf packs by working together to take down their prey, including seals and larger whales. Killer whales communicate through a wide range of sounds, and each pod has a signature audio sound that pod members can recognize from far away. In orca populations, knowledge is passed down to younger individuals from their elders. This concept includes what to eat and where to find it, how to catch it, whom to avoid, vocalizations, and calls that are unique to pods and family groups. Having multiple prey items to choose from likely led to the niche specializations we see today.
6. Leopard seals are able to survive in some of the world’s coldest waters.
These types of seals are named for their black-spotted coats. The pattern is similar to that of the famous big cat, although the seal’s fur is gray rather than golden. Leopard seals are also referred to as sea leopards. They are fierce hunters with powerful jaws and large, muscular body. Their patterned fur on their bodies is dark on the top and lighter on their underbellies. The fur acts as a camouflage in the water, enabling them to hunt down fish, penguins, squid, and smaller seals with ease. They often wait underwater near an ice shelf and snare the birds just as they enter the water after jumping off the ice. They may also come up beneath seabirds resting on the water surface and snatch them in their jaws. In comparison to other seals, leopard seals are earless seals with long bodies and elongated heads. To survive and thrive in the cold waters, a thick layer of blubber provides them insulation and protection.
5. Opah fish are no strangers to frigid temperatures.
The opah, also known as the moonfish, has relatively small red fins decorating its large, round body, growing up to six feet long. The fins, which flap rapidly as the fish swims, become essential in generating body heat for the opah. This fish has a countercurrent heat exchange system in its gill tissue to cope with such frigid conditions. This system allows it to maintain a body temperature that exceeds the surrounding water’s temperature by approximately 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Therefore, the opah is warm-blooded, which makes it unique amongst fish species and allows it to remain active even in near-freezing water. The increased temperature speeds up physiological processes within the body. As a result, the muscles can contract faster, the eye’s temporal resolution is increased, and neurological transmissions are sped up. This notion means they have faster swimming speeds, better vision, and quicker response times.
4. Emperor penguins are the tallest and largest of all the penguins.
These penguins are one of nature’s great survivors and are exclusively found in the Antarctic. There, the water temperatures remain around the freezing point for saltwater. To cope with the Antarctic weather, emperor penguins have the highest feather density of any bird species, with around 100 feathers covering one square inch of skin. In the water, these feathers flatten to create a waterproof outer layer, which protects the penguins’ insulating down from becoming saturated with cold water. They also huddle together in tightly-packed groups to conserve heat and shelter themselves from the intense winds. Occasionally, these huddles can be too good at keeping the emperor penguins warm. The penguins on the outside of the huddle regularly muscle their way inside as they face the direct hit of Antarctica’s icy wind chill. In addition, the penguins on the inside get too hot, so after a while, they need a little room to cool off.
3. Greenland sharks have been observed at depths of up to 7,200 feet.
Found in the sub-Arctic, Greenland sharks can survive the near-freezing temperatures of these waters thanks to a compound called trimethylamine oxide. This compound acts as a natural antifreeze and prevents ice crystals from forming in the sharks’ bloodstream. This compound also makes Greenland shark meat poisonous to humans and other mammals, so this species has no natural predators. Greenland sharks are among the most massive sharks globally and have been known to grow as long as 21 feet long. Greenland sharks are not spotted frequently because of their ability to dive to such extreme depths. Not only can they dive as deep as 7,200 feet, but they also sometimes can be found relaxing on the slopes and shelves far under the ocean’s surface. Although all sharks are cold-blooded, this particular species truly thrives in a frigid environment. They always migrate to the coldest part of the water each season. In fact, Greenland sharks are the only known shark species that can tolerate Arctic conditions all year long.
2. Antarctic sea spiders’ legs can grow to span the width of your face.
Like all marine invertebrates, Antarctic sea spiders have a body composition that matches the ocean’s salinity, which means that as long as the water around them remains in liquid form, they cannot freeze. Antarctic sea spiders are considerably larger than temperate sea spiders, having an average leg span of 29.5 inches! It is thought that this polar gigantism occurs due to the heightened levels of oxygen found in cold water. Sea spiders are bizarre. They feed by sticking their proboscis into soft animals and sucking out the juices. These sea creatures do not have much room in their bodies, so their guts and reproductive organs reside in their spindly legs. They also do not have gills or lungs. To cope, they absorb oxygen through their cuticle or shell-like skin.
1. Tardigrades — swimming water bears — are almost indestructible.
Also known as water bears, tardigrades are microscopic animals found in some of the world’s most extreme environments, including the deepest ocean trenches and under thick sheets of ice. They have eight legs and hands with four to eight claws on each. These animals can withstand exposure to absolute zero temperatures. Tardigrades survive by replacing most of their internal water with sugar trehalose, which prevents them from crystalizing and damaging cell membranes. They are also able to reversibly suspend their metabolism, a phenomenon known as natural cryopreservation. They can even survive the chilling conditions by going into an almost death-like state called cryptobiosis. These sea creatures curl into a dehydrated ball, known as a tun, by retracting their head and legs. The tardigrade can come back to life in just a few hours. Tardigrades can also make many antioxidants, which is another way to protect their vital organs from the freezing waters.