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Animals that Challenge the Freezing Temperatures
Jan 1, 2005

One of the natural conditions that animals struggle with is surviving the freezing cold. Cold weather causes great loss in animal life. In some ways, this phenomenon helps balance the animal population and sustains the ecological system that exists in the world as a manifestation of the perfect knowledge and might of God. If all animals were resistant to the cold, there would be many problems in terms of the availability of food and shelter. However, there are some animals which can survive the cold weather due to special features. The protection mechanisms granted to those animals which live in cold climates are all different. As people have long wondered how these animals protect themselves against the cold, there have been many studies carried out on this subject.

Animals with “Anti-Freeze”

Although it is not clear whether human beings took the idea of anti-freeze, i.e., adding a substance to water to prevent it from freezing, from animals, some animals living in cold climates have a substance in their blood that prevents them from freezing. When the skin or the operculum of fish that live in cold seas comes into contact with ice, their blood starts to freeze, and the fish soon die. The reason for this is the rapid increase of ice crystals in their blood. However, there are many fish species that live in cold areas despite such unfavorable conditions. Some species in these areas retreat to the deep water where the water is -1.8°C to prevent freezing. However, in Antarctica there are fish living in areas that are much colder than this. These fish can protect themselves against freezing in the very cold temperatures of Antarctica thanks to chemical substances in their blood that work like anti-freeze in a car. Could it be possible that this technique of anti-freeze has been codified in the genetic programming of fish not by a conscious Creator but merely by coincidence? Such an idea would be logically difficult to accept. The substance called AFGP (Antarctic Fish Gliko-Protein) found in the blood of fish in Antarctica works as a natural anti-freeze and helps fish survive in icy water without freezing. Special proteins synthesized by genes that have been codified by special programming are linked to ice crystals, and they are thus able to prevent ice crystals from forming in the body of the fish.

Researchers have discovered some of the genes that codify AFGP during their study on some species of fish that belong to the Notothenioidei suborder, which live in Antarctic water without freezing; these fish are the Notothenia coriiceps and the Dissostichus mawsoni. The genes that were discovered codify a protein in a substance that prevents them from freezing. This protein is manufactured in the pancreas, but is not broken down in the intestines. Researchers are still trying to identify the gene that codifies the AFGP. Once this gene has been comprehensively understood, the protein which the gene codifies can be produced artificially and inexpensively. In this way, a small amount of anti-freeze protein injected into the blood to prevent freezing could save many lives. However, for the time being, it seems like a far-fetched possibility that this gene can be inserted into a human genome. All the genes in our body are interrelated with one another, and therefore a new program that would change the formation of the blood, preventing it from completely freezing, might cause many adverse side-effects.

The Miracle of Salt

Many fish have substances that cause the freezing point of their blood to fall below zero. Scientists have determined that the most common of these substances are the salts found in body liquids, in particular sodium chloride. These salts account for an 85% reduction in the freezing point. It is not possible for fish, which are unaware of the physiology of the body liquid and the complex relations of the metabolism with the process of freezing, to have developed such a protection mechanism through evolution.

Fish are not the only animals with anti-freeze. From the world of insects, Cryptopygus antarcticus (the Antarctic springtail) and Achorutes nivicola (the snow flea) are creatures that can survive in very low temperatures. Many animals become motionless or die when the temperature dips below freezing. But the Antarctic springtail can easily move and jump around at these temperatures. The biological reason for this vivacity is the anti-freeze system of this insect. Some of them can even live in glaciers unharmed for a period of up to three years.

Waterproof Fur

The otter (Enhydra lutris nereis) has a different type of protection against cold. The otter has been hunted for its soft, thick, velvet-like fur, bringing it to the brink of extinction. This animal’s fur is such a fabulous protection that otters can swim for days without even getting wet. The thick fur protects the otter from the cold. Unlike many sea animals, the fat layer under the otter’s skin is very thin, and is thus not very helpful against cold. Instead, the One whose Mercy is Endless has granted them a thick fur that protects them from the cold.

Polar Bear Dens

When the dens of polar bears are examined, many fascinating aspects are discovered. If a female polar bear living in Antarctica is pregnant or has just given birth, she makes a den under the snow; this is the only way that she can survive. The cubs are usually born during the middle of winter. When they are born, they are hairless, sightless and very tiny. These totally vulnerable and very needy babies are born in the middle of winter and they need proper dens in order to survive. A typical den consists of a two-meter hole and a round cave half a meter in diameter. It is only about half a meter high. However, this is no ordinary shelter constructed by a simple procedure. In a place where everywhere is covered by snow and ice, this den is dug very carefully under the snow drifts, and every detail necessary for the lives of the cubs is ensured. These dens usually consist of more than one room. Despite the fact that polar bears lack knowledge of thermo-dynamics, they dig out a smaller den above the entrance, ensuring that the warm air in these rooms cannot escape. Throughout winter, snow accumulates at the entrance and on top of the den. The polar bear leaves only a small, narrow channel through this snow drift to allow the air in. The thickness of the roof constructed by the mother bear is somewhere between 75 centimeters to two meters. This roof works as a good insulator, keeping the existing heat inside.

A researcher from Oslo University, Paul Watts, placed a gadget on the ceiling of one of these dens to carefully measure the heat. His findings were surprising: while the temperature outside fell below –30 degrees, the temperature inside never fell below 2 or 3 degrees. The scientists were also amazed to discover that the mother bear constructs her den like an expert physicist, building her nest with perfect insulation. In this warm and protective setting the mother bear does not die of cold because the fat reserves in her body are sufficient for her hibernation period. However, the period of hibernation is an even more interesting issue: the metabolic rate of the mother bear slows down to save energy, thus enabling the cubs to be better nourished. Thanks to these characteristics, granted by the One whose Mercy is Endless, the fat stored in the bodies of polar bears is turned into protein over a hibernation period of seven months, feeding the cubs. This is how the polar bear survives without eating any food for such a long time. Its heart rate decelerates from 70 beats per minute to 8, and the metabolism slows down in accordance with this. As the bear does not eat any food, it does not need to defecate or urinate.

Parenthood in a White World

It seems as if penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) thumb their noses at the freezing cold. The mothers return back to cold seas shortly after laying eggs in order to feed. The mating pairs do not build nests, because there is nothing around them except snow and ice. Yet, they cannot leave their eggs on the ice, for the egg would be immediately frozen. So, while the mother is hunting for food, the father penguin takes care of the chicks over a period of three months. The fathers gather around in a group to carry, initially, the eggs, and then the chicks, holding them on their feet in order to protect them from freezing. The feet of penguins are covered with feathers, and are 80 °C warmer than the outside temperature, thus keeping the egg from freezing. The penguins form a circle with their backs facing out, and the chicks on the inside. Those fathers that happen to be located at the outer most part of the circle change places from time to time with the other penguins to protect themselves from freezing. This is necessary, because the temperature is around -50 °C.

Are such animals as we have discussed here capable of learning and thinking? Or are these abilities that are peculiar only to humans? Differentiating humans from animals along strict lines, Descartes (1596-1650), who said “cogito, ergo sum: I think, therefore, I am,” went so far as to claim that animals do not feel, let alone have an ability to think. Some biologist today argue that animals might not have the ability to think as we understand it, but they can still behave in some logical ways that are peculiar to them, and they can learn. Nevertheless, we cannot give animals credit for comprehending the need for anti-freeze in their blood, the protective characteristics of salt against freezing, how they should make their dens, or form circles to protect themselves against the cold. Rather, we could say that all these are manifestations of the most beautiful names of our Lord. One of the meanings of the 16th verse of the Surat al-Anbiya, It was not for nothing that We created the Heavens and the Earth and all that is between, is that we are to understand that there is a Divine Wisdom and Insight in the creation of each and every one of the creatures of the universe.


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