In his ground-breaking work of scientific literature On the Origin of Species, wherein theories of evolution by natural selection were presented for the very first time, Charles Darwin made one message emphatically clear: a species’ ability to survive doesn’t come from its smartness or strength, but its capacity to adapt to change.
And over the last few muddled months, in the face of bewilderment and upheaval, humans world-round have been accomplishing myriads of miniature triumphs in the name of adaptability every day. Whether learning curriculums at kitchen tables, running marathons on indoor treadmills, hosting family get-togethers over virtual calls, or celebrating selfless centennial birthdays, we have been exhibiting the malleability of humanity all along.
Here, we are celebrating the world’s most remarkable species, from snow leopards and emperor penguins to ibexes and llamas, and exploring how they have adapted to endure even the most inhospitable environments. From them and their shows of fortitude, we encourage you to channel your inner bison or beluga and find out, who is your survival spirit animal? Who knows, you might discover you’re more of a dik-dik than you thought.
At home in arid shrublands and savannahs, dik-diks are the dust-coloured, doe-eyed darlings of eastern Africa. A species of dwarf antelope that could easily be mistaken for helpless prey, this tiny hoofed mammal is actually a small fry survival powerhouse. Able to survive without drinking water, they hydrate by licking dew from their long snouts and grazing on leaves, fruits, shoots and berries, adaptations that are well-suited to their challengingly dry habitat. Beneath the inner corner of their large eyes are pre-orbital glands that secrete a territory-marking liquid, spread by burying their heads in the long grass and allowing them to peacefully lay claim to their domain.
What we can learn from dik-diks: The do-gooders of the bush, dik-diks are concerned with the welfare of the masses when faced with frightening situations – in response to danger, they raise the alarm by darting in a zig-zag pattern while whistling through their noses as a warning to other dik-diks and larger prey, too.
Swathes of thick fur safeguard them from wintry forecasts, huge heads double as snow plows to uncover frostbitten vegetation, and protruding shoulder humps allow for all the head swinging that an 11-hour grazing day necessitates. Historically migratory creatures that once roamed in millions-strong herds from the Alaskan wilderness to the Mexican grasslands, bisons take the lead role in one of the greatest conservation success stories of all time after their almost total annihilation at the hands of European settlers. Today, these eight-foot-tall beasts ramble in a region that is less than 1% of their former territory – and yet, they prosper. Having adapted to embarking on long journeys, they can scuttle at a surprisingly speedy 40 miles per hour, swim across half-mile wide rivers, and leap over six-foot-high hurdles.
What we can learn from bisons: With a keen interest in the welfare of the herd, bisons know to fall into line behind a strong leader when moving into uncharted territories, travelling in single file to ensure that no one is left behind or lost along the way.
Specially adapted to not only withstand unremittingly bitter weather fronts, but to thrive within the planet’s most extreme habitat, emperor penguins are equipped with small flippers that conserve warmth, large fat stores that double as an energy source, and scale-like feathers that repel wind and rain. One of Earth’s great nomads, the emperors apply their endurance to waddle and slide between 60-100 miles every winter to reach their inland breeding grounds – while they might not look like competitors, these are monochrome endurance athletes.
What we can learn from emperor penguins: After laying their eggs, the wearied females leave on extended hunting trips while the males huddle together with their backs to the blizzards to shelter their fragile eggs, not eating for a whopping 100 days. This heroic undertaking, that sees the most resilient sacrificing for the most vulnerable, is one of nature’s finest examples of the majority acting in the best interests of the minority (not to mention impeccable social thermoregulation…)
Capable of roaming as far as 27 miles in one night, these rootless mammals are so elusive that they have garnered the nickname “ghosts of the mountains”. Known for their immensely powerful legs that facilitate forward leaps of up to 50 feet and huge snowshoe-like paws that allow for traverses of jagged glacial terrains, snow leopards dwell mostly in the harsh climes of the Himalayas. Pale cats sprinkled with charcoal flecks, they have adapted to blend so seamlessly with their alpine habitats that they are notoriously challenging to locate – an exhilarating challenge for photographers, a deadly reality for prey. To combat the cold, their thick, nearly metre-long tails become furry windshield during the sub-zero mountain nights (while allowing them to maintain equilibrium on rocky precipices during the day), and an extra-large nasal cavity warms the wintry air before it reaches the lungs.
What we can learn from snow leopards: In a remarkable display of self-reliance, snow leopards live by themselves in gigantic territories of up to 80 square miles. Resolutely self-governing and dependent on their own intuition, these cats are proof of the peace to be found in solitude and the great things that can be achieved by the lone ranger.
Descendants of wild guanacos and known for their long necks, stubby tails and comical faces, llamas are native to the Andes Mountains in South America. Perfectly adapted to endure all the elements that come with high elevations, these herbivorous mammals possess a velvety under-coat as well as a coarse upper-coat to ensure their protection against both the altitudinal chill and mountainous debris. What’s more, their distinctive feet are made up of just two soft-padded toes, both capped with a hard toenail, an efficient adaptation that makes them remarkably sure-footed on uneven terrains while causing minimal harm to their environments.
What we can learn from llamas: Despite their clumsy inelegance and outwardly daft demeanour, the llamas’ high tolerance for water and oxygen depletion and ability to forage on the harsh Andean plateau make them the misunderstood underdogs of survival – and all this while being able to conjure a laugh with just a look.
Arctic: Beluga Whale
Born grey and gradually turning white over their first eight years of life, each beluga whale is an individual example of the species’ notable capacity for adaptation. Nicknamed the “canaries of the sea”, their anatomical structures allow for a broad range of vocalisations to be emitted through their nasal sacs, making communicating with other whales possible (which is pretty important when your habitat is shrouded in darkness for half the year). With their intrinsically care taking spirit, belugas have even been seen to adopt lonely narwhals into their happy-go-lucky pods. While the prominent bump on a belugas head, known as a “melon”, is a feature common to all toothed whales, the white whale’s melon is the only one capable of changing shape. This distinct feature makes it possible for belugas to focus the direction of their sound projections, find their way around underwater by echolocation, and even find breathing holes in the sea-ice.
What we can learn from beluga whales: Capable of chirping, squawking, whistling and cackling, these pasty cetaceans are among the world’s most impressive aquatic conversationalists, able to communicate despite long distances and maintain friendships while being far apart.
Europe: Alpine Ibex
Gravity-defying wild goats that are native to the French and Italian Alps, alpine ibexes reside in highland forests and rocky terrains where they fine tune their agility and sure-footedness. Having adapted strong anti-predator strategies, these nimble herbivores are unperturbed by the sheer cliff faces that would be too perilous for anything that might hunt them. To aid their high-altitude daredevil antics, their powerful legs enable them to jump more than 6 feet in the air without a running start and their rubbery two-toed hooves can grip to near-vertical precipices as they pursue winter vegetation and mineral salt.
What we can learn from alpine ibexes: The alpine ibex know that life can’t be all hard work and uphill struggle. When not bounding between lower alpine meadows and lofty heights, they are in favour of taking time out to curl up on a sun-drenched rock and watch the world go by.