(notes from prof. Pauzi’s 2011 Arctic scientific expedition)
In the arctic, among the most conspicuous species present are birds of various kinds, examples are arctic terns and skua (bird of prey). They wear different coat for summer and winter. In summer they have brownish and dark colored coat while in winter they have white coat from head to toe for camouflage – to blend in with the surrounding environment so as to avoid predators. In winter their predators are arctic fox.
The foxes are also white in winter, therefore it is difficult for the birds to avoid them or for the fox to catch them. Hence, foxes depend on their acute sense of smell to catch the birds. On the other hand the birds have good hearing and can also detect vibrations so can easily escape upon ‘hearing’ footsteps of predators.
Regulating body temperature
In animal world, there are a few strategies animal use for adaptation, one of which is regulating their body temperature in relation to their surroundings. Surface area to volume ratio is the most important parameter in regulating body temperature. For example, elephants (big animals) have low ratio, find it hard to lose heat therefore they have large ears, and long tunks for heat dissipation, besides hairless and wrinkled skin. Wrinkled skin increase surface area for heat dissipation. On the other hand, rats have large ratio, so they can lose heat easily, hence it is difficult to retain body heat, thus Allah equipped rats with lots of body hair. Similarly For birds, in the arctic, they are well equipped to live in very harsh conditions (strong wind, sub-zero temperature). In the winter, birds grow downs which is the first layer of feather (have intricate network of feathery cells) to trap body heat. On top of downs, there are more feathers which act as insulation. In the arctic regions, Ultra Violet (UV) radiations is extremely high, therefore the white feathers /plume of birds help deflect radiations thus protecting them from harmful radiation besides protecting them from predators.
Some scientists believe that birds feet have antifreeze which help them move over the glacier or in frigid water and to prevent frostbite in winter. In addition, all birds have webbed feet for wading and swimming in water to find food since there is not much food on the surface (ice and snow). Webbed feet also add more surface area for better detection of vibrations to avoid predators.
In the summer, when the temperature rises to about zero or slightly above freezing and with 24 hour daylight, most ice will melt exposing the natural colour of soil and rocks which is brownish. So the birds shed downs and white feathers slowly changed to darker colours to blend in with the surrounding background. Likewise, foxes also undergo similar changes and their pups born in summer will have brownish coat while those born in winter have white coat. The adults change coat colors from white in winter to brownish in summer.
Some animals can change color instantly (squids, octopus and chameleon) to match with surroundings. In the arctic, the changes come in six month cycle.
At the onset of winter, around the month of October, the birds flock to one place and then fly off southward following their leaders. They fly for thousands of kilometers non stop until they reach their destination.
“Do they not see the birds suspended in mid-air up in the sky? Nothing holds them there except Allah. There are certainly Signs in that for people who have faith.” (Surat an-Nahl: 79)
Before migration, they filled up their stomach with food and make sure their young ones are able to fly. While in the southern region, most parents die and the younger generation will make it back to the arctic in the summer and thus the cycle goes on. Arctic birds are equipped with large wing span for long distance flight.
How do birds know the onset of winter? what are the signals for them? Is it the first snow? Or air temperature? Or the length of a day? Or there is less food? Subhanallah, Allah knows better. To date scientists have no answer to this puzzle.
Furthermore how do birds know which direction to take, every year and consistently? Do they have magnetic compass? How do they navigate ? Scientists believe that they navigate by chemical signal in the air, or earth magnetic field spanning the North-South direction or by following al Buruj or the constellation of stars.
Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day are signs for those of understanding (Ali Imran:190).
In this verse, Allah remind us of changes between the night and the day. For ulil albab (those who think/reflect deeply) will come to understand that there are also other changes or alternations such as here in the arctic, are the alternation of season followed by the changes of animals appearances ; how is it that birds know when to change colors and feather types? Is it in their genetic codes? White to brown; day to night; summer to winter… all are signs of Allah’s greatness.
Lets refresh our memory of the story of prophet Sulaiman a.s. and Hud-Hud (An-Namlu:20-22):
And he took attendance of the birds and said, “Why do I not see the hoopoe – or is he among the absent (20)?
I will surely punish him with a severe punishment or slaughter him unless he brings me clear authorization (21).
But the hoopoe stayed not long and said, “I have encompassed [in knowledge] that which you have not encompassed, and I have come to you from Sheba with certain news (22).
The story here indicate that birds are clever creatures, can travel long distances and are capable to survive. besides, they can also be trained to carry out certain tasks such hunting and sending messages.
Subhanallah, signs of Allah’s greatness is everywhere, especially so when one travel to new places/ surroundings. All one need is to look at the wonders of His creations, then think how great is the Creator. Scientific expeditions open up one’s eyes and stimulate thinking of Allah’s amazing creations.