20 Clever Ways That Deer Survive Winter


Deer are one of the most critical species in all of North America. Forests are their primary habitat and they have adapted well to survive winter.

Deer have thick, oily fur which repels snow and rain, and their footpads harden in winter. Caribou can lower the temperature of their legs to incredibly low levels so that they retain body heat. Deer will seek shelter in blizzards, and on sunny days they warm up on south-facing slopes.

If you want to know how the deers deal with their wintery conditions, then I have put together 20 ways that deer survive winter.

Eyes

Caribou can alter the color and structure of their eyes according to the seasons they go through.  They do this to adapt to the imminent cold.

The changes in the reflective membrane located behind the retina are called the tapetum lucidum.  The membrane allows the animals to adapt their eyes to see in the dark or the light. 

The temperature, the atmospheric pressure, the presence of water and food aand the possibility of refuge are fundamental issues that influence the reindeer and their habitats.

During the cold, they must be able to achieve all these aspects to survive.

Due to the positioning of their eyes, deer have a massive field of view of 310 degrees; this is in comparison to a human who has an area of vision of 180 degrees.  Deer are also able to see ultraviolet light, although they can only see two colors.  It is believed by scientists the deer can see blue light and a light that is between red and green.

Their enhanced field of vision comes from the eyes being on the side of their head, and this enables them to observe the whole panorama. 

Researchers confirm that UV vision can be useful for deers in the distinction of food and predators in the snow. For example, lichens, the leading food, would be black in the eyes of deers in North America.

Nose

The British Medical Journal magazine took the time to carry out a study on deer and researched the nose of the reindeer.  They concluded that the red nose of a reindeer is not just a story that was created for Rudolph.

Thanks to infrared light and a thermal camera, scientists could see the noses of the deer shine with a red or pink pigment.  This information helped a considerable amount in working out how deers breathe during the winter.

Can Ince, a professor of medicine, studied the microcirculation of deers and realized that the nose of this species is full of many small blood vessels. These blood vessels transport the red blood cells so that they can discharge oxygen in the tissues that need it most.

The deers live in freezing temperatures, with some environments even reaching -40ºC. Even in an environment that cold, deer still need to keep their vital organs at an ideal temperature.   Researchers decided to see how the deer’s temperature changed when they were exhausted.

The highly vascularized nose of the deers was found to regulate the temperature of the animal’s brain. The nose acts as ventilation to the brain. The blood vessels are filled and emptied to a rhythmic flow that had never been observed before.

The noses of the deer have smaller vessels and a 25% greater density in those smaller vessels, than those of humans. The vascularization helps not only to keep the temperature of the organs in good condition but also to heat the air that enters the body.

This process makes it much easier for deers to emit the sounds they make as they warm the air that comes in even during the winter. This is how their throats do not get damaged, and they can keep their voices for the mating season.

It may be helpful to know that the red nose of the deers works like an air conditioner for the air they breathe.  The nose also condenses the water in the air to conserve the moisture.  The moisture in the mucous membranes is in the area of ​​the face and connected to them.

Skin and Fur

Skin is an excellent protection method, not just for deer but for every living mammal.  The deer’s whole body is covered in fur that gives them the protection they need during the winter.

The skin of the deer has an import function to the animal.  The skin gives protection against the cold temperatures that the winter brings.  This is the reason why the skin and fur of deer are so desired to make coats for the big fashion houses.

The fur of the deer tends to be brown with some touches of black and can change throughout the seasons.  The fur is thick with layers.  Every day it grows more, and it is renewed like human hair.  The fur can provide the animal with reliable protection when there is heavy snowfall.

Their fur is thick so they can withstand the winter snowfall and snowflakes.  The fur works as a protective barrier against the cold and the snowflakes melton the fur, turning to water on the deer.  Some species have longer coats than others due to the temperatures where these animals are found being more extreme than those in warmer climates.

Deer have many advantages, thanks to their skin.  All species have a unique skin type that, in conjunction with their fur, protects them from the winter cold and gives them much needed warmth. 

The primary function of the hairs is to provide heat to all of the skin underneath.  This, in turn, keeps the organs from freezing in the sub-arctic conditions.

The fur of a deer not only traps the air to keep the body insulated but also acts as a flotation device when it enters the water. Deer are strong and fast swimmers. When they migrate, they travel through steep terrain and swim through large, icy rivers.

The winter coat of the deer absorbs more sunlight and traps more body heat than the fur that they use in summer. Therefore, it provides exceptional protection against extreme temperatures.

Digging

Deer are known to use their antlers to dig for food when they are in the winter months. Their antlers have a primary function, which is to help them reach food during this tough climate. They look for lichens, better known as mosses, that function as a source of energy for the deer.

During the winter, the plants that deer normally eat fall on the ground and are buried.  Covered by the snow, they may perish without being found.  The plants can also freeze on the ground.  Deers need to find the plants quickly and so use their antlers to aid them.

Deer will tilt their heads and begin to peer into the snow to get food.  This is one of the main ways to survive the winter that deer have adapted.  Food is one of the essential ingredients for the species and is in short supply in the winter months.

Trying to get food from the ground is somewhat difficult at first when the antlers are not fully grown large. 

Deer will help each other to get enough food in the winter when they are young. When they are adults, getting food is an individual task.

The longer the antlers are help the deer to get food in a quick manner.  By doing this quickly, they are not expending energy inside the deer’s body. 

Pads

During the winter, the pads on the feet adapt to the different conditions.  The pads harden to become something like an ice pick.  The deer use this to cut the surface of ice and snow, keeping them steady on their feet. 

Together with their antlers, the hooves are one of the main ways that deers use to survive the winter.  By using the new hardened pads, they are used to excavate food that they find buried.

The pads shrink and retract during the winter months, and there are even researchers who claim that they can harden a little more than usual.

All to help them to get more food and also to have much more grip towards the land with snow where they are treading the even through the forest with leaves and a lot of snow that freezes more and more. The fact that they contract and retract makes it possible to split the ice where they walk and have much more grip.

The balance of the deers and also their physical activity depends on their pads adapting to each climatic season they face. Mainly in the winter, if this adaptation process is not carried out, the deers may take a sedentary attitude that will only do them badly. It’s going to make them sick and feel bad.

If your pads adapt, they can move more efficiently and safely throughout the habitat in which they are. Therefore, it is necessary that these are in good condition. Deers need them to get food and stability during one of the most challenging times of the year.

Smell

Another way that an adult deer has to survive the winter is in the way it feeds.  Deer are herbivores and only eat plants. Favorites include ferns, sprouts, herbs, mosses, fungi, and leaves.

An adult deer can eat four to eight kilos of vegetation per day. Deer have a keen sense of smell that is very useful for finding food during the winter season. 

Deer have an excellent sense of smell, which helps them to find food under the snow.  They will first try to locate the food with their superb nose. 

When they have found the food by smell, they will then start digging.  They will do this by using their hooves and also their antlers.  Their keen sense of smell can even tell them how deep the food is.

Deer have such an exceptional sense of smell that they can find lichens below the snow. Lichens are full of energy and useful for heating the blood of deer. Also known as deer moss, lichen can be buried up to 2 ft (60cm) below the snow.  

With their excellent sense of smell, deer can find the lichen quickly and efficiently, even buried so deep in the snow.  This is one of the main ways deer survive winter.

Temperature

During winter, caribou have adapted to survive the cold by controlling their body temperature. Caribou can lower the temperature of their legs to incredibly low levels so that they retain body heat. It is a process that is associated with their central nervous system.

When they feel that the temperatures are extreme, and the cold is reaching deficient levels for them, they will adjust their internal temperature controls. It is something that occurs naturally and is a huge help to them to surviving the winter.

By lowering the temperature of their legs, this enables the body to redistribute the heat.  The body prioritizes, sending the heat to the main organs of the deers’ body. The heat is sent to the heart, lungs, face and to its body.

Caribou are endothermic, so warm blood is circulated down to the feet to stop the legs freezing.

Pack Animals

Deer are animals that will travel in a herd. The herd are very close and always protect each other, with the strong protecting the weak. Deer are very social animals and do not like to be left alone.  The unity in the pack helps them to survive the deep winters.

During the winter, snowstorms make it difficult to see, and to locate other deer.

To stay as a herd during these times, the deer have had to develop a way to adapt.

The method they use is through sound waves.  When they are walking, deer will make sounds with their knees.  The sound of the knees tells other deer where the rest of the herd is.

These sounds work especially well in blizzards, where the deer cannot see each other.  By using their large ears, they can hear these sounds over the storm.  

Deer have a larger range of hearing than humans.  Although we can hear every bleat and grunt that deer make, they hear higher frequencies than us.  

Deer can hear up to frequencies of at least 30,000 hertz.  Humans can only hear up to about 20,000 hertz.  This enables them to be able to hear higher-pitched sounds better than us.

Fat storage 

The deers begin to prepare for winter in the months before. They make both psychological and physical changes, long before the temperatures start to fall.

They begin by storing fat around the internal organs and under their skin, which isolates and provide reserves of energy.  This helps to protect them for the next few tough months. The deer will eat much more during summer and fall to enable the fat to build up for the winter.

First, the deer start to create internal fat.  This helps to protect the main organs, including the heart, lungs, stomach and liver. They will then generate further fat under the fur.

As winter arrives, fat works as a natural heat generator that helps the deer to be comfortable even when temperatures are very low.

Activity

Deer have an excellent talent for running, and they are a very active species. However, this changes drastically when they enter the cold winter season.  They adapt their lifestyle to a slower pace, knowing the new shortage of food they will face.

During the winter, deers can not consume 8 kg of food per day just as they did during spring or summer.  As the snow falls, this covers the few plants there are, and with nothing growing, they have to adapt to a new diet.

The way they do this is by decreasing their activity.  When winter approaches, deer will stop running and traveling long distances.  This gives them the energy to survive throughout the winter months with the minimum amount of food they are eating.

The body of the animal fulfills the main vital functions only.  These are the heartbeat, breathing, digestion and body temperature.  Any other activity that they want to perform can not be done since the body is at minimum power.  IThe energy must be administered prudently by the deer until the winter is over.

Deer keep their functions intact to run or perform any activity that involves a significant expenditure of energy if needed. 

When the winter is over, and with an abundant supply of new plant matter plentiful, the deer return to all the physical activities they did before.  The physical activity keeps their legs from atrophy, and they can burn off any excess fat that they have left from the winter months.

Shelters

Although deer have many ways to protect themselves from the cold, they also need a good shelter.  This needs to be a comfortable place where they can take shelter when the weather is very threatening.  Deer, during winter, tend to seek refuge in coniferous stands. 

These areas are much sought after by deers because they are an ideal refuge from the conditions.  These stands are made up of firs, spruces, pines and larches.  As they form a uniform stand, with low shrubs beneath, they make an excellent winter location for the deer.

In the coniferous stands, the wind speed is reduced, and snow is accumulated on the trees.  This provides a much better cover than a field would.  As more snow accumulates in these spaces, the deer will be at a higher temperature at night than they would normally be. This helps them sleep better as they know the cold will not get to them.

The shelters they choose are not far from the place where they usually live in other seasons. They typically spend the nights in their shelters, trying to warm up, using the warmth of the herd. They also take advantage of the ground with thermal cover from the blanket of snow.  Once they wake, they go out to look for food and stretch their legs a little.

Diet

Some deer, depending on their location, choose to change their diet.  Their diet is a way to survive the winter and be able to adapt without significant problems. 

Deer can change their diet from green plants to nuts and woody plants. They look for ends of hairy branches or irregular scars on the trees where the deer have used their lower teeth to tear off branches.

These trees help them accumulate fat as they can consume approximately five to nine pounds of food per day. The deer use this reserve of fat during the winter to supplement their food intake. They can lose up to 20 percent of their body weight before spring.

Deer understand that there will not be as much food during this time of year.  The lack of food is why they will eat as much as they can in the seasons before.

By storing enough energy, the deer are ready for when the rough winter comes.  Although their food supplies are lower in the winter, the deer will not need to eat as much.  This is due to the fact that they have this reserve of energy.

Among the foods that deers can eat, are white cedar, a deers favorite food.  Although not the most nutritional tree for the deer, the cedar is easy to digest.  Deers know which foods are easier to digest and which foods to avoid, and they will do this until starvation becomes a realistic possibility.

Deer choose foods that are easy to digest in the winter.  Due to their metabolism decreasing, digestible food is preferred.  By choosing easier to digest plants and trees, the deer do not have to expend the same energy to digest heavy meals. 

With the little food available, deer can not spend significant calories to break down the tastiest foods and extract better nutrients when there are foods that are easier to digest.

Teamwork

Deer are herd animals and do not function well when alone.  When groups of deers assemble, they also protect each other. It is common to see a group with deer looking in different directions, watching for predators.

If a predator is discovered, a swish of the tail serves as a warning signal to the rest of the pack.  In this way, all the deer can be alert and protect themselves from predators.

Deer will fight to protect themselves, and although not the most fearsome in the animal kingdom, they will do what they can to protect themselves and the herd.  They may kick and bite to stop predators from attacking.  Teamwork is crucial for deers to survive during the winter.

If deer were not herd animals, then there would surely be hardly any deer left in the World.   Predators are a significant threat within forests, and it is necessary that each deer take care of the other’s back, whether this be against predators or the storms and blizzards.

Sun

Deer use the sun in winter to help them survive.  Deer look for slopes oriented to the south, predominating those that are towards the southeast.  These spaces are the ones where you will see the highest activity of deer.  West-facing slopes may also receive some deer migration activity.

The south-facing slopes receive the greatest amount of sunlight throughout the day, which makes the area more attractive for this species. Also, gaining more sunlight produces more vegetation so that the deer have more opportunity to eat during the winter.

Energy

One of the main tricks that deer use is not doing much physical activity in winter.  Deer are capable of sitting for long periods of time during a particularly severe storm, without moving for days.  In this time they do not even eat.  They make this possible by depending on their reserves of fat that they have created during the fall.

The lack of physical activity leads them to use the minimum amount of energy.  This is why, even if they do not eat well enough in winter, their body will always have the required energy to assist with the vital functions.

Oil

Deer also have oil-producing glands in the skin that help the hair to repel water.  This is especially valuable in the snow.  These droplets of fat are similar to the cells in human hair that prevent snowflakes from melting in your hair.  If the cold rain and snow reached the skin under the fur, this would likely freeze the animal.

If these glands did not exist, all the snow that falls on them would arrive without a significant problem until their skin causing them to cool down and lose the body heat they are trying so hard to preserve. The oil-producing glands are distributed throughout the skin, with some studies revealing that they can be found in hair follicles.

Heart Rate

Due to their large bodies, energy can be used up very quickly.  One adaptation that the deer has gives a direct correlation between the heart rate and the body temperature of the deer.

When things get tough during the winter, the deer lower their heart rate and body temperature, and this reduces energy expenditure. The resting heart rate of a deer is 40 to 50 beats per minute.    Humans have higher heart rates of lower than 50 beats per minute.

It does not matter if the deers eat too much or too little to store energy; the heart rate slows down during the winter.  The heart rate, which is generally 65 beats per minute in spring, lowers to as much as 40 beats per minute in winter.

Sleep

The winter coat of a deer keeps these animals warm even when they are in weather of -30º Fahrenheit.  One of the highest quality sleeping bags of a camping company protects people in cold temperatures up to zero degrees.  This makes a deers’ winter coat much more protective than today’s most advanced sleeping bags.

Every hair in a deers’ winter coat is hollow, so the air is trapped inside, which helps encourage them to retain heat.  The use of their hair for heat is imitated in cold weather clothing, bedspreads, and window panes.

Drinking

All deer need water to survive but can meet their water needs in a few ways.  Deer can get their intake from bodies of water in their habitat.  They can also get water from consuming the foods they eat. 

This is considered as preformed water and is taken from the plant.  Through the process of digestion, water is released from food.

During the winter, deer do not feel as much need to drink water as when they are in summer or spring.  This is somewhat convenient since freshwater freezes during cold climates. 

Although they do not need to drink as much in winter, deer will try to consume water at every opportunity they have through.

Deer, during the winter, can recycle their urine and dry their faeces internally to conserve water.

Hypothermia 

Deer can face hypothermia if they fall into the icy water in the winter season.  Like any other living being, they will eventually succumb to hypothermia. 

Deer can handle much colder temperatures before hypothermia is a concern.  They can swim for a few minutes until they manage to get out of the body of water.

The reason why the cold water does not affect them is due to the skin they have. The skin acts as a flotation device when they begin to swim, either voluntarily or accidentally, within any body of icy water.

Hypothermia can set in if they last more than five minutes in the water.  After five minutes, they will lose all body heat no matter how thick their fur and skin.

Conclusion

Deer have many methods and adaptations to help them survive in the winter.  

The methods that they have developed to survive the cold are part of evolution which has been taking place for millions of years. Deer are one of the most developed species during the winter, and most of the herd tend to survive.

Deer are a very well-kept species in North America. There are non-governmental organizations which are dedicated to the surveillance and protection of deer, not only during the winter but also during other seasons.

We can learn from the adaptations and behavior of deer, and these can help us to adapt to the cold conditions that we face.

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Mammals.

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