Wildlife in Winter: Catching Prey Under the Snow

By Colleen Beaty|February 13, 2014

Last week I wrote about how some animals like voles, mice, and shrews utilize subnivean habitats as a way to stay warm and avoid being seen by predators while they forage.

An ermine in the snow. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

An ermine in the snow. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Of course, predators need to eat too. And while the snow allows the rodents to stay out of sight, there are several predators such that have developed other ways of finding their prey. For example, weasels (especially ermines) will dig down through the snow to look for rodents and their subnivean tunnels.  Sometimes they will even take over the tunnels and make them their own after they’ve preyed upon its original inhabitants.

There are also several predators such as owls, foxes, and coyotes with such excellent hearing that they actually listen carefully for squeaks and sounds of movement under the snow before ambushing their prey. Red foxes, for example, can hear very low-frequency sounds, enabling them to hear rodents scampering beneath several feet of snow. Scientists also believe that foxes tune in to the Earth’s magnetic field to hunt: as a fox follows the sound of its prey beneath the snow, it’s searching for the “sweet spot” where the angle of the sound matches the planet’s magnetic field.

Foxes can be especially fun to watch as they jump high and then dive headfirst into the snow to catch rodents. The clip below, from The Discovery Channel’s North America series, is an entertaining example of this behavior.

Have you ever seen predators hunting for prey under the snow?  We’d love to hear your stories in the comments below.

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