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Arctic

About AquaFacts: AquaFacts are a resource for students who are looking for information on the animals at the Aquarium or other Aquarium-related topics. Here, we’ve compiled some of the most frequently asked questions that we’ve received about the Arctic. The answers come from our biologists and from reputable sources that we reference at the end of this page. If you have a question about the Arctic that’s not addressed in this page or the references below, please feel free to email our librarian.

Arctic

Questions & Answers

What animals live in the Arctic?

Animals found in the Arctic include ringed, harbour, harp, hooded and northern fur seals, walruses, polar bears, bowhead whales, belugas, narwhals, Greenland sharks and about 100 species of fish. Many bird, insect and non-marine mammal species also live in the Arctic.

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Which Aquarium exhibits represent the Arctic?

Arctic Canada represents the Arctic region of Lancaster Sound. A natural-looking beluga habitat and various displays in the underwater viewing area introduce visitors to this beautiful and harsh habitat.

How cold is the water in the Arctic Canada display?

Aquarium staff keeps the water in the Arctic Canada display close to 11°C.

How do the animals keep from freezing?

Heat loss happens 25 times faster in water than in air, so you get cold much more quickly. Belugas, seals and other marine mammals have thick layers of fat (blubber) to help them keep warm. This blubber insulates the animals and keeps them warm in the near 0°C temperatures. It also provides an energy reserve. Seal blubber can be 5-7.5 cm thick and the blubber of a bowhead whale can be up to 60 cm thick. Other Arctic marine animals and fish have a substance similar to “antifreeze” in their blood (glyco-protein) that keeps them from freezing.

Are belugas endangered?

Belugas as a species are not endangered, but COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) has listed the St. Lawrence beluga population as being endangered. There are currently fewer than 500 individuals and their numbers continue to drop. This may be caused by high levels of pollution and boat traffic in Quebec’s St. Lawrence River. Toxins dumped into the water end up concentrated in the beluga’s fat. Fat is the main ingredient of the beluga mother’s milk that feeds the calves so this further concentrates the toxins in the next generation. Boat traffic is another factor contributing to the decline of belugas because their noise masks out the sounds belugas use to find food, breathing holes in the ice (in the Arctic region), and each other.

Is it true that the sun doesn't set in the Arctic?

In the summer it certainly feels that way. Because of the way the earth tilts toward the sun, the Arctic can be bathed in continuous sun for several months in the summer. To even things out, when the North Pole is experiencing continual sunlight, the South Pole is experiencing several months of continuous darkness—and vice versa.

Where are all the penguins?

There are no penguins in the Arctic. You can only find penguins in the Southern Hemisphere. The closest thing to a penguin in the Arctic is the auk. While they look and act like penguins, auks can fly.

Why are there so few trees in the Arctic?

Trees do not thrive in the Arctic because the permafrost prevents their roots from extending into the soil. Without a firm anchor, the harsh, icy Arctic winds can topple large trees. The permafrost also limits the amount of nutrients that are available to the trees. To make matters worse, the Arctic has a very short growing season, preventing large trees from storing enough nourishment to survive the long winter. In spite of these harsh conditions, some parts of the Arctic are home to willow forests. These forests, found in Arctic Alaska, can reach a height of five to seven meters and some are 400 years old.

Marine mammals have blubber and fish have glyco-protein, but how do other animals stay warm?

Fur and fat are common among other Arctic residents. Musk oxen and Arctic foxes both have dense winter coats, and the musk ox has insulating fat. The Arctic foxes' short legs, ears and muzzle help to limit heat loss. Polar bears have blubber, thick fur and an outer coat of porous hairs to keep them warm. The porous hairs trap air, which is then heated by the bear’s body, insulating the bear from the cold. The ptarmigan has feathers that increase in density during the winter when they burrow into the snow to reduce heat loss.

Arctic waters are covered in ice during the winter, so how do marine mammals survive without access to air?

Most whales and other marine mammals avoid the harsh winters and migrate to warmer waters. However, seals remain in the ice-covered waters. In the fall, while the ice is rubbery, the seals push up against the ice with their heads to form a shallow dome filled with air. During the winter, they will return to these domes to breathe—keeping it clear of new-forming ice. In spring, these domes are enlarged by the female seals to create a safe place for giving birth to pups.



Facts & References

Did You Know? 

  • You can tell how old a walrus is by the number of rings you can find in a cross-section of its teeth, similar to “growth rings” on a tree.
  • The largest puffin colony has more than one million nests. It is found on Talan Island in the Okhotsk Sea.
  • Polar bears are so efficient at trapping and conserving heat that they run the risk of overheating.
  • To cool down, the polar bear may lie spread eagle on the ice, or swim in the frozen waters.
  • That arctic temperatures on land can vary from –60°C in the winter to as high as 20°C in the summer.

References

  1. Arctic Studies Centre. Smithsonian Institute.
  2. Arctic Theme Page. NOAA.
  3. Fogg, G.E. 1998. The Biology of Polar Habitats. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
  4. Young, Stephen B. 1989. To the Arctic. John Wiley & Sons. New York.

Permission is granted by the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre for classroom teachers to make copies for non-commercial use. This permission does not extend to copying for promotional purposes, creating new collective works, or resale.

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Did You Know?

The largest puffin colony has more than one million nests. 
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