Museum exhibit examines winter survival of arctic animals

UAMN photo
The UA Museum of the North exhibit, “Hibernation and the Science of Cold,” examines the strategies of many different hibernators, including marmots and arctic ground squirrels.
Theresa Bakker

An exhibit opening Dec. 15 at the University of Alaska Museum of the North examines how northern animals survive when it gets very, very cold.

“Hibernation and the Science of Cold” guest curator Brian Barnes said that question has fueled three decades worth of research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“It only takes about a year of living in Fairbanks before you begin to wonder how animals make it through the winter,” said Barnes, who is the director of the UAF Institute of Arctic Biology. “In some cases we discovered that animals here are doing things nobody had measured before.”

That includes arctic ground squirrels hibernating at temperatures well below zero and insects able to withstand temperatures as low as minus 238 degrees Fahrenheit. Research into hibernation and other survival strategies can also help improve medical treatments.

Barnes said the latest examinations of winter survival strategies at the Institute of Arctic Biology focus on circadian rhythms.

UAMN photo
Ravens are highly adaptable. They cope with winter by taking advantage of several food sources, including human garbage.
“What we found when we looked at the body temperatures of arctic ground squirrels is (that) they turn those rhythms off,” he said. “One of the basic functions of circadian rhythm is to wake us up in the morning; that’s not something you want to be doing when you are trying to save energy in a hibernaculum or a den here in the Interior.”

“Hibernation and the Science of Cold” features live hibernating animals and original video games that teach animal winter survival. It also presents some of the questions researchers still have about species that live in Interior Alaska.

Roger Topp, the museum’s head of production, said the exhibit will help visitors understand how durable life can be and the many awe-inspiring ways animals endure Interior Alaska winters.

“I want visitors to see that bears are light sleepers and ground squirrels are pretty much dead to the world when hibernating,” Topp said. “I want visitors to not only see frogs freeze and thaw and then come to life after spending a winter frozen in the mud, but to take a frog step-by-step through that process themselves.”

“Hibernation and the Science of Cold” will be on display in the Special Exhibits Gallery until May 15, 2013.

ADDITIONAL CONTACTS: Roger Topp, UAMN head of production, at 907-474-6985 or via email at Brian Barnes, Institute of Arctic Biology director, at 907-474-7640 or via email at