In my fictional world I am planning to have a humanoid species living on an arctic continent, and I am wondering what type of biological adaptations a humanoid (as in, anatomically modern humans or our extinct close relatives) might need to survive in such an environment.

For clarity, the continent in question is an ice-capped land mass connected to other, more temperate continents so there is no issue about migration into the region and the climate will most likely be more stable than our real-life arctic due to having proper ice caps rather than just sea ice. This question is purely about biology and the types of adaptations that my hypothetical humanoids would probably develop given enough time & isolation in this environment.

The inspiration is of course the jotunar found in Norse mythology, but my humanoids need not be actual giants. They should however be intelligent on some level, and have some capacity for speech and language if not the cultural sophistication of humans.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ FYI: Inuits and other arctic population were able to thrive THANKS to the sea ice: in the ocean covered with ice you can fish, on a barren land covered with ice you can only starve $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica May 23 '18 at 3:32
  • $\begingroup$ Ancient humans that hunted mammoths, as well as modern Inuit, all live in the arctic. $\endgroup$ – The Square-Cube Law May 23 '18 at 3:41
  • $\begingroup$ Im aware there are modern humans living in this environment but they survive using tools and human intelligence, not the kind of biological adaptations im asking about $\endgroup$ – Nascence May 23 '18 at 3:48
  • $\begingroup$ Just a note for the downvoter, the "Anatomically Correct" meme is a long running tradition on this site and is generally an accepted type of question (although if there's other reasons for the downvote feel free to ignore this) $\endgroup$ – Sydney Sleeper May 23 '18 at 3:51
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ For more information which may require edits, please see the Anatomically Correct series main page. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – JBH May 23 '18 at 5:31

Being a giant is a good start. Scaling up from a human will get you a giant with l² surface but l³ bodymass, which is great for retaining heat. Fat is good, as is copious body hair. If you are striving for humanoid shape, go easy on the concept of "a sphere has minimal surface, thus minimal heat loss". Perhaps have fewer, thicker fingers, no individual toes. They should be able to curl up into a compact form, with much hair outside, possibly tufts of hair for the mouth- region (huskies use their tail). Young ones won't have the size, so the parents will need to feed them high energy milk, and lots of it, additionally being very plump is valuable.

The area/mass thing works against you on the issue of breaking through ice, so either they wear snowshoes, or their feet are disproportionally large.

Ability to hibernate with minimal energy usage would be great.

For hunting (no subsistence farming/gathering in climate that harsh) they need acute eyesight, and hearing. If they hunt something that lives below the ice, its helpful to have something that bridges the impendance- gap from the ice, so perhaps a claw- like nail made from really brittle material, which they can use to feel high frequency sounds in the ice.

The scarcity of trees to me says they evolved without sticks, so either make them crack shots with a stone or piece of ice, or give them a natural weapon - fangs, claws, elbow-spikes... Everything they kill will have a tough hide, so give them something razor-sharp to break open the carcass - claw, tooth, some sort of ridge...

  • $\begingroup$ I like the idea of fangs, it fits nicely with some established fantasy "races" like orcs, but with a practical purpose! Giving them the ability to hibernate is a good one too. $\endgroup$ – Nascence May 23 '18 at 5:22
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ You have converged them on polar bears. That makes sense. $\endgroup$ – Willk May 23 '18 at 17:17

You might look at creatures which have adapted to live in (ant)arctic environments.

First question is just how "arctic" you want your land to be: like Earth's regions around the Arctic Ocean, with a winter/summer cycle that allows vegetation to grow, or like Antarctica? The problem, of course, is the base of the food chain. Either you need a summer to grow land-based plants which feed grazers and ultimately omnivores & carnivores, or you need a food chain based on ocean plankton.

In the former case, you can have land-based animals. They will probably evolve to be something like a cross between grizzly & polar bears: fairly large, with thick fur and an insulating layer of fat which they build up during the brief summer, with a diet that's mostly meat & fish. They might hibernate in winter.

For an Antarctica-like habitat, your only solution is to become largely aquatic, living near the shorelines, going to sea for food, and coming ashore to rest & breed. In Antarctic, of course, your main model is the penguin. For a mammalian species, you could look at walruses & sea lions, or even polar bears.

  • $\begingroup$ I was going to do the penguin version but here you already did it! + $\endgroup$ – Willk May 23 '18 at 17:18
  • $\begingroup$ Due to the shape of the continent there will probably be antarctic-like ice caps, as well as tundras and probably some coastal sea ice in some areas. Maybe I should have them migrate between areas seasonally? $\endgroup$ – Nascence May 24 '18 at 1:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Nascence: Then I'd say your best model is the polar bear. In the summer, they migrate some distance inland, eating plants, spawning fish, and whatever else they can catch. (And if intelligent/civilized, storing some for winter.) In the winter they migrate to the coast and perhaps out on the ice pack, and hunt seals and such. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf May 24 '18 at 17:16

Take a look at people who currently live in arctic: Eskimos. Eskimos have higher fat content in their eyelids to keep their eyes more insulated.

Here is an article on Inuit adaptions. Im sure you can google for more.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.