Friday, January 31, 2020

Using their heads to survive winter

Three Bison in Snow, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

It seems crazy to spend the winter living on a mountaintop, but the wildlife of Yellowstone National Park do that every year. And they somehow manage to thrive. Life finds a way.

While I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve visited Yellowstone, I recently got a chance to make my first winter visit. I got the full experience. Nearly a foot of snow one night. Temperatures as cold as 9 below — Fahrenheit, not Celsius. And I developed a new respect for the animals that I’d photographed so many times before in less challenging weather conditions.

Here are a couple of their stories.

Bison Crossing Firehole River, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Nearly 5,000 bison call Yellowstone home. It’s the only place in the contiguous United States where bison have lived continuously since pre-historic times.

Bison are grazing animals, and they’re especially equipped to survive the winter. Their thick coats are one part of the equation. Coarse hairs keep the cold away from their skin. They even seem comfortable while they’re wading in rivers.

Bison Grazing in Winter, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

A more unusual trait is a unique group of muscles. You may have noticed that bison have large humps on their backs. Under those humps is a group of muscles that allow them to use their heads like snowplows.

Most grazing animals clear snow by sweeping the ground with their feet. Bison plunge their heads into the snow and swing side to side to expose grass. They can clear a sizable patch in seconds.

Coyote With Snow-Covered Nose, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Coyotes also featured prominently in this trip. I saw at least one every single day. They’re skilled at finding food and winter gives them a chance to really show off.

They have an incredibly powerful sense of smell — by some estimates their noses are a thousand times better than ours. Even a foot of snow wasn’t enough of a barrier to prevent them from sniffing to find voles and other small animals hiding underneath.

Coyote Pouncing in Snow, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

I’ll spare you the gory details, but several times I watched one walking in deep snow, sniffing around. Suddenly, it would stretch out and pounce. Almost every time it came up with a meal.

Winter conditions may seem harsh for us, but the wildlife of Yellowstone has certainly managed to adapt.

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