The white-coated animals of the Dolomites in winter
Partridges, hares and ermines: masters in the art of camouflage
At a first, cursory glance, there seems to be just a deserted expanse of snow but, if we look more closely, we realise that it is unexpectedly teeming with life. Red deer, hares, foxes, roe deer, small rodents and even bears leave traces of their presence, as their tracks create intricate patterns that reveal the silent, mysterious life in the mountains during winter.
The animals that were able to go away have already left the cold, inhospitable slopes of the Dolomites, moving southwards toward warmer, more generous havens. Some of them have put their life “on hold”, that is they have reduced their metabolism, by seeking refuge in sleep during the long winter months in a warm den or burrow. Instead, for those that have remained awake, winter brings with it significant changes: it does not only mean changing their physiology and behaviour, but also their appearance to allow them to face the difficulties of the cold season.
Low temperatures, food shortages and high visibility ‒ due to the lack of foliage and the presence of snow ‒ make each day a challenge, which in order to be overcome requires precise strategies: for some animals it is time to go down to the bottom of the valley to find milder conditions, while many need a thicker coat and for others it is finally time to change their colour.
“Disappearing” is a must to survive winter in the Dolomites. The ptarmigan is certainly a master in the art of disguise. It moults practically all year round, its plumage varying from grey/brown in spring and autumn to brown in summer and becoming snow-white in winter, just like the snow that covers the slopes at the high altitudes where it lives. A white that unites males and females ‒ although they have different plumages in other seasons ‒ except for the thin black stripe between the eye and beak which is a typical feature of a “male”.
A worthy antagonist in camouflage is the mountain hare: snow-white in winter, except for tip of its long ears, and in the harsher season it has furry feet that help it stay atop snow.
But not only prey feel that it is necessary to disappear in this season: the ermine, a slender, nimble and sprightly predator, cannot afford not to catch its prey in winter. Its thick winter coat provides an effective barrier to cold air and traps its body heat, while its colour, which changes from cinnamon during the hot season to pure white in the cold one, is perfect for sudden lethal ambushes, if it were not for the tip of its tail, which is black throughout the year, that betrays its presence.
A flurry of white animals: these are the Dolomites at high altitudes, in winter. Do not be fooled by their apparent stillness: in the various valleys there are battles, escapes and hide-and-seek to survive, with beauty and elegance, in the harshness of winter.