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What does it take to survive, even thrive, in tough, icy mountainous terrain?

Equally tough and unique evolutionary adaptations. An unforgiving climate, hypoxia-inducing thin air, limited food and difficult terrain, par for the course in alpine ecological niches, may sound hostile. However, those creatures that have managed to adapt to such circumstances find their food and shelter needs insulated from competition from species that are unable to live in such areas. Life inevitably finds a way and Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest is demonstrated in every known habitat on the planet. All these ‘powers’ are gifted to lifeforms by the magic of time, constant mutations along with evolution and natural selection. On the following pages, Sanctuary shines a brief spotlight on some ‘fantastic beasts’ that occupy our least-accessible snow-capped mountains, now facing the grave challenge of climate change, which threatens to melt the snow and ice from under their feet.

Snow leopard Photo: Shivaram Subramaniam.

Snow leopard Panthera uncia: Believed to be the closest relative of the tiger, the snow leopard is an apex predator in a habitat that ranges from the high mountains of central Asia to Russia in the north and across the Himalayan ranges right up to China towards the east. This cat’s adaptations are many, including enlarged nasal cavities that warm the air before it is breathed in and thick fur that insulates and camouflages it in snow, rock and scree. To say that Panthera uncia is a near-perfect evolutionary adaptation success would be an understatement.

Status: Endangered

Hangul Photo: Pranay Chandra.

Kashmir stag (hangul) Cervus canadensis hanglu: The hangul, a subspecies of the red deer, is found exclusively in and around Jammu and Kashmir’s 141 sq. km. Dachigam National Park. Perhaps under 200 individuals remain in these forests. In the breeding season, stags sport impressive, branched antlers and their calls reverberate across hill ranges, advertising their availability to hinds. In Lower Dachigam, the hangul build fat reserves through summer, gorging on palatable vegetation, acorns, dropped walnuts and more. These fat reserves help the deer to survive the cold winters, when food is restricted to tree barks and other tough plant materials. Climate change poses a serious threat to a species already facing extinction from the ‘normal’ trials of life, which in recent years has included habitat destruction, overgrazing by livestock and pollution.

Status: Critically Endangered

Chukar Partridge Photo: Sabr Dri.

Chukar Partridge Alectoris chukar: A relatively-widespread bird across the open, grassy, semi-arid regions of Eurasia, the Chukar inhabits high-altitude habitat extending to 4,000 m. in the Himalaya. Ironically, it also survives in some low-lying areas around the Dead Sea! The bird’s non-descript, grey-brown feathers are interspersed with striking black streaks along its wings, throat and cheeks. This helps camouflage the avian in the snowy expanse. The non-specialist feeder forages on the ground, a trait that helps it survive harsh winter months.

Status: Least Concern

Red fox Photo: Shivaram Subramaniam.

Red fox Vulpes vulpes: If there is one species that can display extraordinary adaptive capability, it has to be the red fox. Possibly the most widespread carnivore on the planet, its range comprises the whole of the northern hemisphere, including the Arctic circle! A crucial adaptive physiological feature of this canid is its ability to survive in contrasting habitats on account of its sophisticated thermoregulation ability. Added to this, are its finely-honed hunting skills, born of razor-sharp reflexes, and an acute sense of both smell and sight. A warming climate might well present this wily animal with the one threat it cannot cope with… competition from more powerful predators for whom melted snows offer access to hitherto inaccessible foods once ‘reserved’ for cold-adapted creatures such as the red fox.

Status: Least Concern

Bezoar ibex
Photo: Sabr Dri.

Bezoar ibex Capra aegagrus aegagrus: The Bezoar ibex is a subspecies of wild goat and is unfortunately a popular target for trophy hunters across its range in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Georgia and Russia. Found from sea level along the Aegean Sea all the way up to 3,000 m., its most prominent and intimidating features are its 1.5 m.-horns, the longest of any animal relative to  body size. As with other animals, it has survived evolutionary gauntlets, but Earth’s rapidly-changing climate leaves the ibex with no time to adapt to changing circumstances. This, some experts suggest, could change its status in the decades ahead from vulnerable to endangered.

Status: Vulnerable

Güldenstädt's Redstart
Photo: Rahul Rao.

Güldenstädt’s Redstart Phoenicurus erythrogastrus: The Güldenstädt’s Redstart is a bird of the mountains. It can survive nowhere else. Widely spread across the mountain ranges of Caucasus, Karakoram, Pamir, Himalaya, Tian Shan and Altai in central and eastern Asia, this is the largest of all the redstarts. An alpine avian, the Güldenstädt’s Redstart is an altitudinal migrant. In winter, it moves down to lower altitudes of between 1,500 and 4,800 m. and, interestingly, breeds at altitudes above the upper tree-line in dwarf-scrub zones. As with most other specialised survivors, a warming world is likely to bring in competitors that could conceivably edge this redstart into oblivion.

Status: Least Concern

Tibetan Fox Photo: Udayan Rao Pawar.

Tibetan fox Vulpes ferrilata: The rare Tibetan fox, also called the Tibetan sand fox, is recognisable by its unusual squarish facial structure and slit eyes. A true fox, it is endemic to the Tibetan Plateau, the Mustang region of Nepal and the cold desert of Ladakh in India. A creature of open steppes across its frosty geographical range, pairs bond for life, surviving on fat-rich prey such as pikas. These small, vole-like mammals are threatened by a warming climate as they are prone to overheating. If climate change causes their populations to plummet, the future of predators such as Tibetan foxes will follow suit.

Status: Least Concern

Tibetan wolf Photo: Shivaram Subramaniam.

Tibetan wolf Canis lupus chanco: Also known as the woolly wolf, the Tibetan wolf was once thought to be the ancestor of the domestic dog, largely because of its small size and the structure of its lower mandible. This grey wolf subspecies is found across central Asia all the way to Tibet, Mongolia, northern China and north India. Its diet differs and depends considerably on the weather. In summer, it lives on marmots, and in winter, it follows herds of ungulates such as wild sheep and Tibetan gazelles. As climate change moves into higher gear, and human use of wildernesses intensifies, the wolf increasingly depends on domestic livestock, which sets it against the most dangerous animal on earth… Homo sapiens.

Status: Least Concern

First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVII No. 4, April 2017.


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