Photograph of a white Arctic Fox in the snow

Life in the Cold

Photograph of an emperor penguin

Right now winter may seem a distant memory, but for animals in and around Antarctica winter is just beginning. In this Nature Classroom we will be exploring some of the adaptations of animals that help them to keep warm when living in the coldest places on Earth. We have investigations about body size, a chance for you to flex your scientific muscles with an experiment looking at insulation, and a penguin make, along with lots of animal facts from the Museum. Scroll down and see what activities you’d like to try!

These activities support learning in the following areas:

Photograph of a snowy owl on grassland

Identify that most living things live in habitats to which they are suited.

Recognise that enviroments can chance and that this can sometimes pose dangers to living things.

Identify how animals and plant are adapted to suit their environment in different ways and that adaptation may lead to evolution.

Using observations and ideas to suggest answers to questions.

Making systematic and careful observations and, where appropriate, taking accurate measurements using standard units, using a range of equipment.

Recording findings using simple scientific language, drawing, labelled diagram, keys, bar chars and tables.

Where in the World?

Photograph of a patchwork map of the world populated with fabric animals

Animals are adapted to suit their environment. The environments they live in are very different in different parts of the world. Around the middle of the Earth is the equator. Here the heat from the sun is strong all year round, and we see warm, tropical rainforests teeming with life. As we move away from the equator, we get seasons – summer when that part of the Earth is pointing toward the sun making the hours of daylight longer, and winter when it is pointing away from the sun making the hours of daylight shorter. It also gets colder, with the Arctic around the North Pole and the Antarctic around the South Pole the coldest places on Earth.

Photograph of an adelie penguin on a rock

Task: Arctic or Antarctic? Can you match the animal with the place you might find them?

Photograph of a polar bear

1. Polar bear: Arctic, Antarctic or both?

Photograph of caribou in the snow

2. Caribou: Arctic, Antarctic or both?

Photograph of an emperor penguin

Emperor penguin: Arctic, Antarctic or both?

Photograph of a snowy owl on grassland

Snowy owl: Arctic, Antarctic or both?

Photograph of a fin whale skeleton

Fin whale: Arctic, Antarctic or both?

Photograph of a leopard seal

Leopard seal: Arctic, Antarctic or both?

Staying Warm: Project Insulation

Photograph of a polar bear

Think about an animal from the Arctic or the Antarctic. What comes to mind? A polar bear? A walrus? A penguin? An elephant seal? These examples are all mammals and birds, and therefore are warm-blooded. What does it mean to be warm-blooded? It means that your body temperature comes from chemical reactions taking place in your cells – your metabolism. If you are cold-blooded you get your body temperature from the environment around you. In cold places this is tricky. There is a reason why there aren’t loads of snakes, lizards and frogs living in the Arctic or Antarctica – they would literally freeze.

Photograph of caribou in the snow
(c) NPS Photo/Katie Thoresen

Warm-blooded animals have to eat a lot to fuel their metabolism that keeps them warm. It is really challenging, so you don’t want to lose any of that hard-won heat. What’s the best way to make sure you stay toasty warm? Insulation! The mammals of the land and sea ice of the Arctic have a thick layer of fur to keep them warm, and polar birds have feathers. Fur and feathers trap a layer of air next to the skin, which in turn helps trap heat in the body. There is also blubber – a layer of fat under the skin – that helps in both birds and mammals. This is particularly important in animals like whales that spend all their time underwater and don’t have fur.

Task: Design your own insulation to keep a pot of water warm, and conduct an experiment to test how good it is.

For this you will need:

  1. Two pots that are the same size: e.g. jam jars or yoghurt pots. They will need lids – if they don’t have lids you could make a temporary lid out of card.
  2. Measuring cylinder or jug.
  3. Thermometer. You could use a kitchen thermometer for this.
  4. Materials to make your insulation. You could try scraps of fabric, shredded paper, wadding, old socks… whatever you can find at home (check with a grown up that it is ok for you to use it). You will also need things like string or rubber bands to hold your insulation in place.
  5. Space in the fridge.
  6. Warm water. Ask a grown up to help you with this – the water should be no more than 40oC. Warmer than that and it could scald your skin if you spill it – safety is the most important thing here.
  7. Copy of our Staying Warm: Project Insulation sheet to record your findings.


Photograph of a sea otter
Sea otters live in the north Pacific and have the densest fur of any mammal, with over 150,000 hairs per square centimetre.
  1. Create insulation around one of your pots. Top tip: make sure you keep the base of the pot flat so that it doesn’t tip up, and don’t forget to insulate the lid.
  2. Use the measuring cylinder/jug to pour the same amount of warm water into this pot and into a pot of the same size that doesn’t have any insulation. This will give us a comparison: how quickly is heat lost when there is no insulation at all.
  3. Measure the temperature of the water in each and log it in your table. Then fasten on the lids and put in the fridge.
  4. Leave for 15 minutes (or you could use 10 minute, 20 minute, 30 minute intervals). Then come back and measure the temperatures in each pot again.
  5. Put the lids back on and return to the fridge for another 15 minutes.
  6. Keep doing this until the temperature stops changing – it will have reached the same temperature as the fridge.

How successful was your insulation? Did it keep the water warm for longer than the pot without any insulation? Seeing the results, is there anything you would change about your insulation design?

Amazing Animals: Ice Fish

Photograph of an antarctic toothfish
Antarctic toothfish, Dissostichus mawsoni (c) Paul Cziko supported by US-NSF

There are cold-blooded animals living in the Arctic and Antarctic. The oceans in particular are full of them. While the Arctic and Southern Oceans are cold, they do not get anything like as cold as it is on land. Instead it stays much more stable at around -2oC (the salt stops it from turning to ice at this temperature). We see adaptations in the animals that live in these cold oceans. There are several types of fish called icefish that make anti-freeze proteins to stop ice crystals from forming in their tissues.

Staying Warm: Animal Size

Insulation is really important for keeping warm. Something else that helps is how much of your body is in contact with the cold environment around you. The largest species of bear (the polar bear) is found in the Arctic, and it is the largest species of penguin (the emperor penguin) that is the only species to breed on the continent of Antarctica in winter. This is no coincidence – being bigger makes it easier to stay warm. Why?

Task: Download our Staying Warm: Animal Size sheet and use some simple maths to investigate how size matters when it comes to living in cold places.

Amazing Animals: The Polar Bear’s Nose

Photograph of a skeleton of a polar bear

There are some things you can do when you have a museum specimen that you can’t do when the animal is alive. One of those things is look up the nose of a polar bear! If you have done this in the Museum, you may have noticed a whole load of paper-like bones up there. These are the turbinates, and they are particularly complex in Polar Bears. The turbinates are multi-tasking bones. In life they are covered in tissues that warm the air up as you breathe in (no ice cream brain for our Polar Bear in the Arctic) and as you breathe out they capture heat from your breath so you don’t lost it. They also capture moisture from your breath, and carry the sensory cells for your sense of smell.

Staying Warm: Keeping Together

Painting of a huddle of emperor penguins
Penguin Huddle by Angela Wade

The continent of Antarctica over the South Pole is the coldest place on Earth. In some places the air temperature can get down to -80oC in the winter. Emperor penguins are the only penguins to breed on the continent of Antarctica over winter. How to emperors deal with the extreme cold? They huddle together to keep warm. The effect of this can be huge: the temperature in the middle of a penguin huddle can reach a toasty 37.5oC even when the air is as chilly as -35oC around them. They are constantly moving in this huddle, so the ones in the middle don’t get too hot and the ones on the edge can get warm.

Task: Make your own paper penguin huddle.

Download our Penguin Huddle templates and create a colony for yourself. Try moving them around like a real penguin huddle.

Climate Change and Polar Animals

Climate change is having a massive impact on the polar regions. In the Arctic, the sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean is breaking up earlier in the year and forming later in the year. Animals like polar bears and arctic foxes rely on the sea ice as hunting grounds, and walruses use it as a place to haul out and rest. The warming oceans are affecting the number of krill – the small shrimp like animals that are an important part of the diet of whales, seals, penguins and other animals. Also, as the Arctic and Antarctic warm up, new species start to move in and threaten the survival of the cold-temperature specialists. You can find out more about the impacts of climage change on polar animals on the Discovering Antarctica website.

Photograph of a leopard seal
(c) Rob Oo

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