One of the biggest tourist draws to Alaska is its unique and varied wildlife. Evolving in a harsh, cold environment, Alaska features wildlife that is singularly adapted to thrive in its icy temperatures and inclement weather. While many people are aware of such Arctic animals as polar bears, whales, and seals, Alaska has so much more to offer, from bald eagles and reindeer to foxes, lynxes, and many more beautiful creatures.
If you’re planning a visit to the Arctic regions of Alaska, knowing what to expect will make your trip that much more enjoyable. Here is a guide to some of the majestic creatures you can expect to see in Alaska.
Given the cold temperatures of Alaska, wildlife in the region have developed a number of mechanisms and features that allow them to thrive. Chief among these is their ability to conserve heat. Alaskan wildlife typically have thick coats of fur or feather that insulate them against the elements, as well as small orifices (nose, ears, mouths and the like) that keep heat loss to a minimum. Many Alaskan animals also possess thick deposits of blubber or fat, which acts as additional insulation to keep them warm in adverse weather conditions.
Many Alaskan animals also engage in hibernation or migration in order to avoid the worst of the winter months. Hibernation is a process where animals sleep almost entirely through the winter, a survival mechanism designed to conserve energy during periods of cold weather, when little in the way of prey can be found. Some Alaskan animals engage in migration, whereby they travel to warmer southern regions during the winter and return to their original habitats during the summer.
The best-known Alaskan animal is the polar bear. These large creatures are easily identified by their white fur coats (which are actually clear-colored) and their sheer size; males can grow over eight feet in height and weigh over 1,500 pounds. Polar bears traditionally make their homes on icebergs in the Arctic Ocean and are known for being skilled swimmers, with polar bears seen swimming for more than 50 miles continuously. Polar bears are carnivores and primarily hunt fish and seals, though they have been known to sometimes attack humans.
If you know who Santa Claus is, you know about reindeer, a common sight in the Arctic. Large in size, these gentle herbivores subsist on a diet of twigs and leaves. While reindeer are traditionally thought of having brown fur, they can also have white- or olive-colored fur. Reindeer are noted for their flat hooves, a rarity among mammals of their class and an evolutionary adaptation that allows them to travel across both snow and bare earth effortlessly.
Fans of rabbits and hares will recognize the Arctic hare, a common sight in Alaska’s wildlands. Arctic hares are much larger than other types of hares, often growing up to a dozen pounds in size. They also possess smaller ears and longer fur coats, an adaptation to Alaska’s harsh winters. Also unlike other types of hares, Arctic hares are known for being competent fighters and are able to fend off many types of threats, such as wolves. Humans in the Arctic have traditionally hunted hares for clothing and meat.
Musk oxen are another frequent sight in Alaska. Known for their thick fur coats, these coats are so massive that they make musk oxen look bigger than they actually are. However, musk oxen are still large creatures regardless of their coats, with males weighing in up to 900 pounds. Thought to be a surviving creature from the Pleistocene Era, musk oxen have traditionally been hunted for food; their hides are also used to make leather and their bones are used to create tools. Other common mammals in Alaska include moose and caribou.
If you visit Alaska, you’re almost guaranteed to see an Arctic fox. While superficially similar to red foxes, Arctic foxes boast thick white coats, tinier muzzles, and more rounded ears. They are among the smallest animals in Alaska, weighing only eight pounds on average. In contrast to other Arctic mammals, Arctic foxes do not hibernate and can be seen at all times of the year. During the winter, Arctic foxes will grow longer and more noticeably fluffy fur coats.
If you visit the Alaskan coast, you’ll be able to see walruses, whales, and seals. Whales are common in the oceans around Alaska, though many whale species only reside in the region for part of the year due to seasonal migration patterns. Whale species that can be seen in Alaska year-round include belugas, narwhals, and bowhead whales. Whales can be easily viewed in areas of the ocean that have little boat activity or other human development.
Seals are a common sight along Alaskan coasts and beaches and reside in the same areas as polar bears, who hunt them as a source of food. Seals make their homes in regions with heavy sea ice and often use their heads to break open areas of thin sea ice, allowing them to breathe easily while underwater. Common species of seal in the Alaskan Arctic are ringed, bearded, and harp seals.
Another frequent sight along the coasts is walruses, which are easily distinguished by their large tusks, which they use both to defend themselves against predators and to navigate on land. Walruses are among the largest animals in the world, often growing up to 3,700 pounds in size. They primarily subsist off of fish and are noted for living in sex-segregated environments except when they are mating.
Finally, Alaska is known for its wide variety of bird life. Due to seasonal migration, it is impossible to see every type of bird in Alaska at all times of the year. Common species of bird in Alaska are gyrfalcons, ravens, gulls, and snowy owls. During warm months in Alaska, the bald eagle, the national bird of the U.S., is also a common sight in Alaska.
Alaska’s wide variety of wildlife is a testament to nature’s ability to thrive even in the harshest of conditions. When you visit Alaska, you’ll be exposed to a wide variety of animals that cannot be seen anywhere else. Whether you are interested in polar bears, whales, seals, bald eagles, or even more humble creatures such as hares and foxes, the sights of rural Alaska will delight you.
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