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Winter Wonderland: Life in the Cold

With much of the Northern Hemisphere in the midst of winter, the long dark nights make for a perfect opportunity to stay in and catch up on some winter related research published in PLOS ONE throughout 2016. From “anti-freeze” in algae to the effects of warmer winters on borreal forests we hope you enjoy these studies looking a various aspects of thriving and surviving in cold weather.

Protection from the Cold

Chloromonas sp

If the idea of dealing with ice and snow this winter sends a shiver down your spine, you’re not alone. In fact, even microbes need a solution for the winter freeze. A recent PLOS ONE study describes one such solution: an antifreeze, or “ice-binding” protein made by Antarctic microalga Chloromonas, secreted to prevent the freshwater organism’s entombment in the ice.

Ice Barrier Zone in C. vulgaris

Without the ability to seek shelter, plants need a strategy if they’re going to survive cold snaps. In a recent PLOS ONE article scanning electron microscropy was used to capture the stunning images above, which reveal an ice barrier featuring very small pore sizes in the walls of cells found in the base of the flower stalks of the alpine shrub, Scotch heather. Water in the small pores can remain unfrozen, even in direct contact with ice, allowing Scotch heather to just chill out during sudden summer freezes.

Enjoying the Snow

Language Survey

With the arrival of the first snowflakes and cooler temperatures, no doubt people spend a lot of time talking about the frosty weather.  In a recent study of Twitter, researchers did indeed find that people living in countries with lower mean temperatures (e.g. Norway, Sweden) were more likely to mention snow in their tweets. In addition, as shown in the figure above, an analysis of different languages showed that cooler countries were more likely to have different words to distinguish snow and ice than warmer countries where the terms were combined into one word.


Tracking Skiing Movements

Having different terms is very useful for effective communication; ice versus snow is likely to elicit a different reaction for people dabbling in the winter sport of skiing. With icy conditions perhaps more likely to cause accidents, it’s important to understand the biomechanics of skiiers and in a recent PLOS ONE study, researchers investigate a method to track the movements made during skiing turns at two different speeds.

Changing Landscapes

Ice Retreat

While some species are worried about keeping warm, others depend on the cold for habitat and survival. Polar bears rely on sea ice for hunting, but with a rapid loss of sea ice projected to continue as a result of greenhouse gas emissions it is unclear how or if polar bears will adapt to a changing climate. To track polar bear land use patterns in the Chuckchi Sea, between Alaska and Polar Bear AlaskaRussia, researchers fit female polar bears with satellite radio collars in a PLOS ONE study and found an increase in land use over a 20 year period. Unfortunately, increased land use has the potential to also increase nutritional stress and human-polar bear interactions.(Image by Alan D. Wilson. Found here.)



Abundance of Eurasian reindeer

Of course, no blog post highlighting winteresque research would be complete without reindeer-related findings! In a recent PLOS ONE article, a group of researchers from institutes in Finland, Norway, Sweden and Belgium assess the role of climate on the dynamics of 14 Eurasian reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) populations – both wild and semi-domesticated animals – which encompassed an over 70-year period of data collectEurasian Reindeerion. More specifically, the team analyzed trends in population dynamics, investigated synchrony among population growth rates, and assessed the effects of climate on population growth rates. Among their findings, the researchers noted that local weather, biotic pressures, loss of habitat and human disturbance appeared to have been more important drivers of reindeer population dynamics than climate. (Image by Alexandre Buisse. Found here.)


Animals are not alone in needing the cold weather to thrive. With Boreal winter conditions also changing rapidly the increasing temperatures and wide temperature fluctuations can result in modified snow coPine_cones_-_Scots_Pinenditions affecting boreal forests. In a recent PLOS ONE article, a group of researchers from Finland report the findings of an experiment that tested the effects of altered snow conditions on soil microclimate and soil properties as well as on the survival and growth of conifer seedlings in a northern boreal confierous forest.  The findings demonstrated negative impact of winter climate change on boreal forest regeneration and productivity. (Image: John Haslam. Found here.)

Escaping Winter:

Cuckoo Migrations

Sometimes however, you’re just better off leaving colder climes behind and migrating somewhere a little warmer. This is a tactic used by Cuckoos from Scandinavia and a recent study published in PLOS ONE set about tracking five juvenile cuckoos making their first flight down to the warmer weather of the Sahel in sub-saharan Africa.

Citations and Image Credits:

Featured Image: From Flickr Creative Commons Photos. By Tony A. under CC BY 2.0 Found here.


Kuprian E, Tuong TD, Pfaller K, Wagner J, Livingston DP III, Neuner G (2016) Persistent Supercooling of Reproductive Shoots Is Enabled by Structural Ice Barriers Being Active Despite an Intact Xylem Connection. PLoS ONE 11(9): e0163160. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0163160

Scotch Heather

Kuprian E, Tuong TD, Pfaller K, Wagner J, Livingston DP III, Neuner G (2016) Persistent Supercooling of Reproductive Shoots Is Enabled by Structural Ice Barriers Being Active Despite an Intact Xylem Connection. PLoS ONE 11(9): e0163160. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0163160

Snow Words:

Regier T, Carstensen A, Kemp C (2016) Languages Support Efficient Communication about the Environment: Words for Snow Revisited. PLoS ONE 11(4): e0151138. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0151138

Skiing Biomechanics

Spörri J, Schiefermüller C, Müller E (2016) Collecting Kinematic Data on a Ski Track with Optoelectronic Stereophotogrammetry: A Methodological Study Assessing the Feasibility of Bringing the Biomechanics Lab to the Field. PLoS ONE 11(8): e0161757. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0161757

Polar Bears

Rode KD, Wilson RR, Regehr EV, St. Martin M, Douglas DC, Olson J (2015) Increased Land Use by Chukchi Sea Polar Bears in Relation to Changing Sea Ice Conditions. PLoS ONE 10(11): e0142213. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0142213

Polar Bear Image:  Alan D. Wilson – ([1]), CC BY-SA 3.0,

Eurasian Reindeer

Uboni A, Horstkotte T, Kaarlejärvi E, Sévêque A, Stammler F, Olofsson J, et al. (2016) Long-Term Trends and Role of Climate in the Population Dynamics of Eurasian Reindeer. PLoS ONE 11(6): e0158359. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0158359

Reindeer Image: Alexandre Buisse (Nattfodd) – self-made (, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Borreal Forest:

Martz F, Vuosku J, Ovaskainen A, Stark S, Rautio P (2016) The Snow Must Go On: Ground Ice Encasement, Snow Compaction and Absence of Snow Differently Cause Soil Hypoxia, CO2 Accumulation and Tree Seedling Damage in Boreal Forest. PLoS ONE 11(6): e0156620. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0156620

Scott Pine Image: By John Haslam from Dornoch, Scotland – Pine Cones – Scots Pine, CC BY 2.0,


Vega ML, Willemoes M, Thomson RL, Tolvanen J, Rutila J, Samaš P, et al. (2016) First-Time Migration in Juvenile Common Cuckoos Documented by Satellite Tracking. PLoS ONE 11(12): e0168940. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0168940

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