Thriving on Ice

On Exhibit posts

In the special exhibition Life at the Limits, visitors can find out which species live in some of the hottest, coldest, and deepest, places on the planet. Here’s a look at some of the creatures you’ll discover and the amazing adaptations that allow them to thrive where others can’t.

Some animal species are impeccably prepared to cope with freezing conditions. Antarctica’s iconic emperor penguins can tolerate temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. They keep warm thanks to an inch-thick layer of fatty insulation and short, spear-shaped feathers—up to 100 of them per square inch of skin, enough to make these the mostly densely feathered birds on the planet.

Emperor penguin

Emperor penguins can tolerate freezing conditions thanks to a dense coat of feathers and other adaptations.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


These famously flightless birds are also accomplished divers, hunting fish, squid, and other marine fare more than 1,700 feet below the surface of the ocean. These hunting trips necessitate another set of adaptations for the penguin, which boasts solid bones that are resistant to trauma brought on by changing pressures during deep dives, rather than the hollow bones that are more common in birds.

Emperor penguins can also shut down some of their organs during a dive, redirecting energy and oxygen to support only the most essential functions. Combine these traits, and you’ve got an amazing animal that can swim for nearly 20 minutes at a time in freezing water—and bring back a meal for its chick to boot.

Find out about more amazing species thriving in exceptional environments in the special exhibition Life at the Limits, open now through January 3, 2016.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer issue of the Member magazine Rotunda.