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Wildlife huddles down to beat the cold

Manatees near Riviera Beach in Florida on 7/01/10
Manatees in Florida enjoy moving into warmer waters when temperatures drop

As temperatures plummet and heavy snow blankets the northern hemisphere, it is not just people who are feeling the effects. The wildlife too has been forced to find new ways to keep warm, as Penny Spiller reports.

It may not be an obvious choice as a wildlife destination, but waterways close to power stations can become quite busy places when the frosts hit.

An inland waterway close to the Riviera Power Plant in Florida found itself hosting a large number of unusual guests in recent days, as temperatures fell close to freezing.

Nearly 400 manatees moved from the cooling coastal waters to enjoy the 33C (92F) temperatures being discharged from the plant. Giant eagle rays and spinner sharks were also spotted in another Florida canal.

Such sites are also likely to be sought out by water birds that normally forage for fish when their usual habitats of freshwater rivers and lakes become frozen over.

"Kingfishers, particularly, are having a tough time finding food at the moment," says Grahame Madge of the UK-based Royal Society of the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

"Their strategy in weather likes this tends to be to move a short distance to the warmer waters near power stations or in city centres. It's quite possible we will see higher numbers of kingfishers in London and other metropolitan centres".

Stunned sea turtles

Mr Madge says such cold temperatures force many birds to make a tough choice at this time of year - whether to stay put and see out the worst of the weather or use their last energy reserves to fly to warmer climes.

Stork in Strasbourg, eastern France, on 07/01/10
To fly or not to fly: A dilemma for birds in such cold weather

But with freezing temperatures affecting much of Britain and northern Europe, those who do fly south hoping to find some ice-free conditions could be out of luck, he says.

"Birds will generally make short-distance movements when their energy levels are low," he says.

"But those birds that fly even as far as southern Ireland at the moment aren't going to find what they are looking for. They may have to go further into southern Europe."

The RSPB has also noticed that Britain this year has become a refuge for higher numbers of bitterns, owls and other birds flying in from Scandinavia and northern Europe, hoping to find warmer temperatures.

But it is not just birds that are feeling the effects of the cold weather.

Iguanas - lizards commonly associated with tropical climes - have been seen falling out of trees in southern Florida, having lost their grip in the cold.

Elsewhere in Florida, hundreds of sea turtles were found floating in a lagoon, having been stunned into a state of shock by the cold. They have been taken to a special rehabilitation centre to be warmed up.

Tropical fish are also giving cause for concern.

Huddling together

At London Zoo, however, the animals are enjoying some well thought-out protection from their keepers.

Kaylee the elephant with five-month-old baby Donna at Whipslade Zoo, UK, on 8/01/10
Snow is a bit of a novelty for the younger zoo animals

Those that need it have heaters, increased levels of food and - if you are a kinkajou (a member of the racoon family) - a sleeping bag.

The cold weather has created some unlikely bedfellows, senior keeper Jim Mackie explains.

The zoo's two Aardvarks, who arrived this year, like to snuggle up together under the heater. They share the meerkats' enclosure, and around five meerkats have worked out that by sleeping on top of the Aardvarks they can get even closer to the heat, Mr Mackie explained.

"We'd noticed quite a lot of interaction between the two species in the summer, but we didn't see anything like this," he said.

"It's been quite an exciting sight to see. We don't think there would be this much interaction between the two in the wild."

While the zoo's tropical animals have preferred to stay close to the heaters in recent days, some of the inhabitants have been enjoying the snow - particularly the young ones who have never seen it before.

"The coati [another member of the racoon family] had a brilliant time, charging around in the snow and trying to find the food we'd buried," Mr Mackie said.

"The ferrets have also had a great time digging through the snow. But they soon get tired of it, once they get cold."

One animal that is not getting tired of the snow is Mercedes, the new polar bear at Scotland's Highland Wildlife Park, where temperatures have been as low as minus 20C.

"A lot of the wildlife here are huddling together right now and cutting down on their activity to stop burning energy," explained the park's Douglas Richardson.

"It's quite the opposite with Mercedes. Right now, she's spinning round on the pond and generally having a great time."



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