The wild ponies and other animals all have a strict plan to help them survive the Assateague Island winter.
Assateague Island is one of the most popular area destinations for Ocean City visitors during the summer time.
The Assateague/Chincoteague ponies gather tens of thousands of visitors every year; many go just to watch the island’s wild ponies swim. The herds are moved from one island to another so that foals can be auctioned off. Others come to the island during the summer just to share a beach day with the majestic animals.
But when the temperatures drop and the tourists stop coming, the wild horses and other animals are still there, making their preparations so they can wait the winter out.
The wild ponies, native to the island since the 1600s, have long developed a strategy to survive the brutal oceanfront winter. They simply grow a larger, thicker coat.
Visit the island today and you’ll notice that the horses look a lot… fatter than they do in the summertime. While they have likely put on a few pounds in preparation for winter, most of that new bulkiness is actually their winter coat.
As soon as temperatures start dropping, the ponies grow out their coats with two distinct type of hairs: down hair and guard hair.
“The down hair, also known as the undercoat, is the layer of hair that is closest to the animal’s skin. These hairs grow very close to each other and tend to be short and curly/wavy. Long, straight guard hairs grow up through the undercoat and give the horses their furry appearance in the winter,” the Assateague Island National Seashore explained on their Facebook page.
Both types of hairs work together to keep the wild ponies warm during the Assateague Island winter. The down hairs work to trap air close to the body, serving as sort of a natural horse blanket, while the longer guard hairs help to shed water off the horse’s back, making sure that the animals skin and down hairs stay dry. As soon as winter begins to thaw, the horses will shed their winter coats and look like normal horses once again.
While these majestic animals work hard to prepare for the harsh coastal winter, there are actually a number of animals that deliberately migrate to Assateague Island for the winter.
The left image above shows the Snow Bunting, colloquially known as “Snowflakes.” These winter birds like the cold. They spend their summers far north on the tundra and then fly south to enjoy the Assateague Island winter. Visitors can see them scavenging for seeds and feasting on small sea creatures like crustaceans during the winter months.
The middle image above is of a Snowy Owl just recently photographed on Assateague Island. These mysterious birds spend their summers in the Arctic and then migrate south during the winter. Project Snowstorm, a non-profit that tracks Snowy Owls’ migration patterns, have tracked the birds to coastal regions in upstate New York along Lake Ontario, beach areas in New Hampshire and New Jersey, and, yes, even to Assateague Island! Back in 2014, the organization was able to place GPS monitors onto 22 of the birds on Assateague Island, allowing them to monitor the Snowy Owl migration patterns and movements while visiting the island.
Lastly, researchers are pretty perplexed over why wild turkeys are now found on Assateague Island. Turkey spottings on the island only date back 12-13 years, meaning that it is only recently that these birds started calling the area home. Not everyone is convinced that the Turkeys stay on Assateague Island year-round, though. While a growing turkey population on the mainland may have forced these birds to migrate to Assateague Island, they don’t always stay put. These wild turkeys can fly at speeds upwards of 55 miles per hour and if they can’t make the flight back to the mainland, they have actually proven to be quite proficient swimmers.
While the changing seasons may force Ocean City businesses to shutter and fewer tourists to visit, the wild animals don’t all seem to mind the Assateague Island winter. Many of the island’s winter animals actually deliberately migrate there for the winter, though few tourists ever get a chance to see them.