Close up photograph of snowflakes

12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Surprising Winter Animals

Think of an animal of winter and what comes to mind? A robin? A swan? A snow flea? Yes, you read that right, a snow flea. This is just one of the more surprising winter animals you can find out about today on day eleven of our 12 days of winter wildlife.

Scroll down for more surprising winter wildlife, and a surprise snowflake craft – crocheted from a recycled t-shirt.

Surprising Winter Animals

Staff and students at the Museum share some of their favourite surprising winter wildlife from around the world:

Wombats with Assistant Director Jack Ashby

Wombat feeding
Wombat in the snow (c) Jack Ashby

Wombats are one of the only marsupials to remain active above the snow line, and will dig down through a metre of snow to reach food below. Wombats in alpine environments can have home ranges that are nearly 40 times larger than their lowland relatives, as they have to travel further to find food that isn’t covered by snow.

British Butterflies with Researcher Dr Andrew Bladon

Brimstone butterfly resting on dried leaves
Brimstone butterfly
(c) Will George CC BY-NC 2.0

We think of butterflies flying around on warm summer days, but these amazing animals have evolved a range of strategies to help get them through the winter. Some, like the purple hairstreak and black hairstreak, spend the winter as eggs, safely protected from the winter weather. Others, like the orange-tip and Duke of Burgundy, overwinter as chrysalises – again with a nice protective coating. However, a lot of species have adapted to lie dormant as caterpillars, tucked away in the vegetation – these include the small heath and common blue. But perhaps most amazingly, some species spend the winter as adults! Larger species like brimstone, small tortoiseshell and peacock love sheltered locations like sheds, barns and out-buildings, where they hibernate protected from the elements. If you find them sleeping, be careful not to disturb them or warm them up, as this will wake them when there is no food around. But look out for them on warm days in February and March, when they begin to emerge. TOP TIP: By planting species which flower in early spring in your garden, you can give these insects some much needed food when they first wake up.

Wood Frogs with Learning Officer Dr Roz Wade

North American Wood Frog
Wood Frog
(c) Joshua Mayer CC BY SA 2.0

The wood frog Rana sylvatica of North America is the only amphibian known to live north of the Arctic Circle. How can a cold-blooded animal survive the extreme cold of the Arctic? Over winter, the wood frog will shelter in the leaf litter of the forest floor. It stops breathing, its heart stops beating, and the fluids outside of its cells will freeze. In fact, around ⅔ of their body water becomes ice, making them look like a frog-shaped ice lolly. Crucially, the cells themselves don’t freeze, protected by the presence of high levels of glucose and urea in the animal’s tissues. When the weather warms, the wood frog thaws and gets on with feeding and breeding once more. 

Arctic Wooly Bear Moth with Research Assistant Matt Hayes

Arctic wooly bear caterpillar covered in long hairs on rock
Arctic wooly bear caterpillar (c) Mike Beauregard CC BY 2.0

The Arctic wooly bear moth spends most of its life as a frozen caterpillar. It lives in Northern Canada and Greenland where temperatures are far too cold for most species of moth to survive. Insects are ectothermic, which means they don’t generate their own body heat and they rely on heat from the sun to warm them up so that they can become active. Being so far north, the wooly bear caterpillar is usually too cold to move around and feed. Instead, it spends 11 months of the year dormant, which means it takes a very long time to grow and build up energy reserves. During these 11 months the caterpillar physically freezes but it survives by producing special compounds in its blood and body tissue called cryoprotectants, which stop its cells from rupturing. The caterpillar then thaws out for one month during the summer and quickly starts feeding on nearly any available nearby plant. It is covered in thick hairs, which allow it to trap heat and give the species its name. Once it has warmed up by basking in the sun the caterpillar can use these hairs to store heat and remain active for longer, allowing it to take advantage of the short amount of time that it has. On average the caterpillar is thought to live around seven years, slowly building up reserves, freezing and thawing before pupating into an adult. The pupa develops rapidly at the start of summer, before the adult emerges for its short two weeks of life. The adult moth does not feed and instead devotes its time to finding a mate and laying eggs; giving rise to the next generation before quickly dying and the cycle repeating. For more information, check out the Cool Antarctica website.

American Alligator with PhD Student Alex Howard

Head of an American alligator
American alligator
(c) Judy Gallagher CC BY 2.0

The American alligator, Alligator missipiensis, inhabit the warm climates of the southeastern United States, where the winters are relatively mild. Living in swamps and marshes, these alligators have a well-documented variety of interesting behaviours including complex vocalisations and even parental care. Alligators at the north of their range, in North and South Carolina, have an interesting way of surviving in winters where the temperature dips below freezing overnight. These alligators can survive short periods of icy weather by resting in shallow water and sticking their snouts above the ice. The animal can breathe through this hole while it brumates (the reptile version of hibernation) until the weather becomes warmer. While this behaviour has been documented since the 1980s, recently the owners of ‘The Swamp Park’ in Northern California were surprised in January of last year when they observed this behaviour as it happened. The Swamp Park manager, George Howard, noted that the alligators appear to stick their snouts above the water just as it freezes. As the water likely stays at a more stable temperature overnight compared to the air, this is probably an efficient strategy for alligators to survive in periods where the weather dips below freezing. For more information, check out the live science website.

Seeing butterflies in winter with Curator of Insects Dr Ed Turner

Selection of butterflies found in a spiders web
Butterflies from a spiders web
(c) Edgar Turner

As Curator of Insects in the Museum, one of the fun parts of my job is getting questions from people about surprising and unusual insects they have found. Over the autumn and winter, one of the commonest questions is where a butterfly in a spare room or garage has come from! These are often peacock or small tortoiseshell butterflies – two common UK species that overwinter as adults. As days shorten and temperatures drop, adult butterflies of these species feed up on late-flowering plants and start to look for a dark and cool location to spend the winter. In the past, chosen locations were probably most often hollow trees or shady nooks under branches, but buildings offer a modern alternative that is appealing to butterflies. Have a look in the darkest corner of your shed or garage to see if you can see any butterflies resting there – as long as it is cool and the butterflies aren’t disturbed, there can sometimes be quite a number. The butterflies rest with their dark wings folder over their back, so they look a bit like small black triangles of card attached to the ceiling. To look after them, the main thing is to keep the temperature low – if it gets too high, the butterflies will become active and can often use up vital reserves, making them unlikely to survive the winter. If I know I have overwintering butterflies in my shed, I tend to check the windows on warm spring days and let them out if they are trapped. Even so, overwintering is a risky part of a butterfly’s life, and it’s not uncommon to find butterflies caught by spiders in sheds before they can fly out into the spring.

Red Pandas with Learning Assistant Sara Steele

Red panda in tree branches
Red panda. Photo by David Sanchez on Unsplash

While red pandas are native to southern Asia, their home in the mountain forests of the Himalayas means that they have adapted to live very well in the cold. The high altitude Himalayan forests see plenty of snow during the two rainy seasons, covering the ground and vegetation until the dry season returns. Red pandas are mostly herbivorous, eating plenty of bamboo. Although they will eat eggs, insects and small animals when the opportunity arrives. Combine the snow and a bamboo diet and the red panda is likely to get frozen toes, or so we might think. In addition to very thick, dense body fur, red pandas are one of very few mammals to have furry soles on their feet. Most mammals have the paw pads that our pet cats or dogs have, but red pandas have fur covering their soles to provide extra insulation from the cold and to help grip onto the slippery snow-covered branches.

Snow-inspired! Sustainable decorations made from t-shirt yarn

Learning Officer Roz Wade writes:

Upcycle an old t-shirt and make decorations for gifts or your home inspired by the beautiful patterns of snowflakes.

You will need:
An old t-shirt or vest-top
Crochet hook

Cutting across a vest top beneath the arm holes

Step 1.

Lay your t-shirt flat on a tabletop or other surfaces. Cut straight across under the arms, and cut off the bottom hem. This should leave you with a square or rectangular tube of fabric.

Vest top folded in half

Step 2.

Fold the tube length-ways, bringing one side seam of the garment to a position around 2cm from the opposite side seam.

Cutting a strip 2cm in from the edge of the fabric

Step 3.

At roughly 2cm intervals, cut from the fold towards the side-seams, cutting through the first seam but stopping short of the second. You will be cutting through four layers of fabric. Don’t worry if your cuts aren’t very neat – they will not show in the finished yarn. At the end of this step you should have a series of strips of fabric of a similar width joined on one side.

Fabric opened out to show folded edge holding strips together

Step 4.

Fold out the side seam where the strips are still attached. It looks a little like a spine with the ribs coming off on either side. You will now cut diagonally between the strips, so that you get one continuous piece of yarn. Start at the bottom and make a diagonal cut up from the lower edge to the end of the cut forming the bottom strip. This will give one free end to your yarn. Then cut in the same diagonal direction between the ends of the cuts forming the strips. It is important that you go diagonally to join the cuts and not straight across, otherwise you will end up with a series of loops of fabric instead of one long piece.

Pulling strip of fabric through hands to curl edges

Step 5.

Take one end of your long strip of fabric within one hand, and pull the whole length of the strip through your fist. This will curl the long edges inwards. Be careful not to hold too tightly or you could hurt your hand. You might need to repeat this process a couple of times to get the desired results.

Crochet snowflake made using t-shirt yarn

Step 6.

Wrap your yarn into a ball ready to use. I have used the yarn to make a snowflake that could be used to decorate winter gifts, or as a winter decoration for your home. This is chunky yarn, so I used a 10mm crochet hook. You can download the pattern here:

It is a simple pattern suitable for crochet beginners. There are lots of great guides to crochet online, here is a comprehensive beginner’s guide to crochet. From the vest top I used I made enough yarn to make two of these snowflakes.

Crochet chain using t-shirt yarn

You could also use the yarn to make a simple braid to use when wrapping your gifts: I made this one just using crochet chain stitches until I had used up the length of the yarn, pulling the end of the yarn through the last loop to finish it off.

Parcel wrapped with crochet chain

I was able to wrap this present without the need of any tape, using the braid to hold the folded brown paper in place.

12 Days of Winter Wildlife Day 12: 12 Days of Critters

Starling murmuration at dusk
Starling murmuration (c) Andrew Bladon

Visit the blog again tomorrow as we draw our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife to a close. Sing along with the 12 Days of Critters, the festive favourite reimagined by PhD student Kate Howlett, and find out about the animals in the song with staff, students and volunteers from the Museum. Finally, inspired by the 12th day of the song, learn how to make your own origami starling murmuration to decordate your home.

12 Days of Winter Wildlife catch up:

Robin on frosted willow branches
(c) John Howlett

Catch up on Day 1 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife. Watch the livestreamed launch, including a virtual tour of the wildlife in the Botanic Garden, a Q&A with Rob Jaques of the British Trust for Ornithology, and sing along with the premiere of the 12 Days of Critters song. Read the top winter wildlife tips from staff and students at the Museum of Zoology. Download our Winter Wildlife spotter sheet, and create your very own hedgehog in a leaf pile.

Robin perched in a yew tree
(c) John Howlett

Catch up on Day 2 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Garden Birds. Enjoy a wonderful film about attracting birds to your garden by Dr Andrew Bladon, listen to recordings of garden birds in winter by Dr Tony Fulford, and learn how to make seed cakes for birds with Lucy Williamson.

Completed moth craft as tree decoration
Moth decoration by Natasha Lavers

Catch up on Day 3 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Active Insects. In this post we explore the amazing world of moths that are active during the winter moths. Find out about moth-trapping with a film from moth expert Annette Shelford, discover winter moths and December moths with Research Assistant Matt Hayes, and make your own moth decoration out or recycled fabric with Museum Volunteer Natasha Lavers.

Woodlouse on wood chippings
(c) Max Westby CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Catch up on Day 4 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Life Underground. Join Dr Ed Turner, Curator of Insects, as he gives his top tips for creating a compost heap, and shows you some of the amazing animals that live there.

Ladybirds in the crevices of a tree branch
(c) Tom Austin CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Catch up on Day 5 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Hibernation. Find out about the insects that huddle away and stay dormant over winter with Matt Hayes, and create your own insect refuge for the garden with Sara Steele.

Pair of red foxes
Red foxes

Catch up on Day 6 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Winter Mammals. Get under the skin of the Red Fox and Badger as Learning Officer Dr Roz Wade takes you on a guided tour of their skulls. Find out about the seal pups born in the middle winter on the Norfolk Coast with Dr Andrew Bladon and watch Ellie Bladon explore the conservation of the hazel dormouse with her award-winning nature film. And download our food cache memory game to see if you have a memory as good as a squirrel’s.

Waxwing with berries

Catch up on Day 7 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Winter Visitors and discover the birds that escape the extreme cold further north by migrating to the UK for winter. Read winter visitors profiles and and listen to recordings of their calls by Dr Tony Fulford. Take a virtual tour of the winter visitors on display in the Museum of Zoology, and get inspired to make sweet treats and wrap them sustainably as winter gifts.

Long grasses and trees at dusk
Wicken Fen (c) Rosalyn Wade

Catch up on Day 8 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Healthy Habitats. Go on a virtual tour of Cambridge University Botanic Garden and see some of the wildlife it supports. Find out about those unsung heroes of the garden – earthworms – and discover what it was about their behaviour that Darwin found so fascinating. And read top tips on how to make more sustainable food choices – comfort food that is comforting to you as well as to the environment.

Group of mallards and swans
(c) John Howlett

Catch up on day 9 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Winter Water. Discover the birds that live on and around water, from ducks and swans to herons and more. Find out about the importance of providing water for the wildlife in you garden, and catch up with the mini-pond created by museum staff earlier this year.

Finished wrapping paper with potato printed
Potato-printed wrapping paper

Catch up on day 10 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Traces of Winter Wildlife. Discover the some of the evidence animals leave behind, from footprints to owl pellets. Be inspired to create your own wildlife film with Ellie Bladon, and learn how to make your own sustainable, potato-printed wrapping paper.

And remember to send your winter wildlife spots and creations to us by tagging us on social media or using #12DaysofWinterWildlife and you could feature in our online community gallery.

Close up photograph of snowflakes
(c) Scott Robinson CC BY 2.0

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