Frozen fauna – Frossen fauna

Chionophile ptarmigans

By Jørgen Rosvold
A flock of rock ptarmigan flying over a snow patch at Kappfjellet in north-central Norway. Photo: Jørgen Rosvold, NTNU University Museum.

Most people in northern areas look forward to the arrival of spring and the melting away of the snow. However, some look at the melting snow with sad eyes, wishing that winter would last a bit longer. If you are one of those you are likely a chionophile, and so is the rock ptarmigan (Lagopus muta).

Chionophile means “snow lover”, derived from the old Greek word for snow chion. In biology, a chionophile is an organism that thrives in snow and winter, and that has special adaptations that allow them to survive well in such conditions. For birds and mammals such adaptations include for example white camouflaging coloration, broad feet that don’t sink deep in the snow and dense fur or feathering that protects against the cold.

Like the reindeer, high alpine ptarmigans, like rock ptarmigans and white-tailed ptarmigans (Lagopus leucura), are very well adapted to snow and winter. These adaptations, however, are not that handy when the weather turns hot. As with the reindeer, the ptarmigans are often found close to permanent snow patches during warm summer days. There they can rest on the remaining snow or in cavities under the ice if the temperature gets too high. As an additional bonus, the birds may feed on wind-blown insects that have gotten stuck on the snow patches.

The availability of permanent snow patches is thus an important factor in the habitat of high alpine ptarmigans. Increased glacial melting due to a warmer climate will thus add to the pressures on these species.

That ptarmigans can often be found near snow patches was probably well known to humans far back in time and may have been a factor, in addition to reindeer hunting, that attracted hunters to these sites.

One of several finds of ptarmigan bones that have melted out a snow patches in recent years. Photo: Jørgen Rosvold, NTNU University Museum.


References to ptarmigans and their use of permanent snow and ice:

– Johnson, R. E. (1968). “Temperature regulation in the white-tailed ptarmigan, Lagopus luecurus.” Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology 24: 1003-1014.
– Kaisila, J. (1952). “Insects from arctic mountain snows.” Annales Entomologici Fennici 18(1): 8-25.
– Mann, D. H., et al. (1980). “Diel activity patterns in snowfield foraging invertebrates on Mount Rainier, Washington.” Arctic and Alpine Research 12(3): 359-368.
– Pedersen, Å. Ø., et al. (2014). “Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus) breeding habitat use in northern Sweden.” Journal of Ornithology 155: 195-209.

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