Dressing for the weather

Blog 7
November 12, 2021

Fall brings lots of seasonal changes. Leaves turn yellow, orange, red, and then fall; temperatures drop; the amount of daylight grows shorter. Animals prepare for winter or migrate. Some animals may also change their color. Ever wonder why?

  • Blog 6

    Long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata noveboracensis) specimens showing winter, transition, and summer pelage (fur).

  • Blog 5

    Snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) specimens showing summer and winter coloring.

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    Male scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea) specimens, showing breeding (spring/summer) plumage in red, non-breeding (winter) plumage in greenish, and the transition in between.


First, not all animals change the color of their fur or feathers, but there are a few that do – weasels, ptarmigans (a medium-sized bird in the grouse family), tanagers, and others. This color change happens for different reasons. For some, the seasonal color change is all about camouflage – an adaptive process that helps the animal hide from predators. The long-tailed weasel is a small, quick, Mustelid (member of the weasel family) that hunts smaller prey, such as mice, voles, and chipmunks. They may also be hunted themselves, so they have to watch out for foxes, hawks, and owls. Camouflage helps an animal blend in with its surroundings. In the summer, long-tailed weasels have a brown coat with a yellow-white belly. This helps them camouflage with the forest floor, prairie or desert. In the winter, their pelage, or fur, changes to white to blend in with their snowy environment.


Many animals grow a denser coat in the winter for warmth. Do you have a dog or cat that gets a thick underfur in the winter time? Your winter coat is also probably thicker than your spring jacket, it’s designed to keep you warm! In some species, scientists have learned that in the winter, animals with coats made of white hairs also have greater insulative properties – they can keep the animal warmer.


Other animals change their color for the breeding season. They grow more colorful plumage in the spring and summer to attract a mate, then molt (shed their fur or feathers) again in the fall into their more camouflaged colors. Male scarlet tanagers sport bright red plumage in the breeding season and change back to yellow-green plumage in the fall.

How do the animals know when to change their colors? Animals take a lot of cues from their environment. The weather gets cooler. Daylight changes. These cyclical seasonal changes give animals cues to transition their coats.

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