by Kathy Kranking
For animals that live in the coldest places on Earth, ice is more than just nice.
Life is icy cold at the top and bottom of the world. But animals that live in frozen places, such as the Adélie (uh-DEL-lee) penguins and leopard seal above, are right at home when they’re chilling out.
Animals of the Arctic (around the North Pole) and Antarctic (around the South Pole) spend much of their lives on sea ice. Sea ice is frozen ocean water. It can be floating pieces called floes (FLOHZ). Or it can be huge sheets of ice along the edges of land. But either way, polar animals depend on it!
WATCH: Adélie Penguins on Ice
Prowling paw-deep in icy water, this polar bear waits for a seal to come up for air. Ice makes a nice platform over seal-filled waters for polar bears on the hunt. The bears may sometimes even have their young on the ice, digging their dens in the snow that piles on top.
Poking up through a crack in the ice, a mother harp seal nuzzles the nose of her pup. Adult harp seals spend most of their time swimming. But they come onto the ice to give birth and nurse their babies. Pups need to stay on the ice until they are old enough to swim and have enough blubber, or fat, to keep them warm in icy waters.
WATCH: Seals on Ice
Ice is important from top to bottom. The bottom of the ice is where plant-like algae (AL-jee) grow, making a green feast for tiny, shrimp-like animals called krill. Krill need the algae to survive. In turn, many animals—from fish to huge whales—depend on krill to survive.
A beluga whale is built for life just beneath the ice. While some whales have tall fins on their backs, a beluga has only a small, tough ridge. That way it can skim along under the ice, chasing fish and other prey. And it can break through the ice with the ridge to open a breathing hole. The whale’s white skin blends in with the ice, which can help it hide from predators such as orcas.
Emperor penguins breed on the ice during the harshest time of year: winter. After a female lays an egg, her mate takes care of it, holding it on his feet to keep it warm. Meanwhile, the mom travels out to sea to hunt for krill, squid, and fish. She returns after the chick hatches, and then the parents take turns hunting for food for themselves and the chick.
As you can see above, a walrus doesn't mind a crowd! Walruses gather on ice floes to rest and also use them to hunt from. The ice floats over areas where clams and other favorite foods live, buried in the muddy sea floor. The walruses leave the ice and dive to the bottom. Using their sensitive whiskers, the walruses snuffle through the mud to find food. Females also haul out onto the ice to give birth and raise their calves.
The arctic fox wears a fluffy, white coat during winter, blending in with the snow and ice. Though it lives on land during most of the year, the fox migrates onto the ice in winter to look for food. It eats leftovers from polar bear meals and whatever else it can find.
Rangers: As the Earth grows warmer because of climate change, the sea ice melts and there’s less of it. That means there will be fewer places for ice-dependent animals to live, hunt, and raise their young. But people are working together to fight climate change. —R.R.
"Frozen" originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Ranger Rick magazine. Click here for a close-up view of the story.