Anyone who reads Outside knows that one of the best backcountry tools a man can have is his dog. Our own K9 editor, Grayson Schaffer, has exhibited the varied merits of canine utility on many occasions. But the unbelievable news last week that a dog named Oly not only survived an avalanche that killed his owner in the Montana backcountry, but did so for
several days while buried under several feet of snow, before ultimately digging himself out and plodding along to safety, only serves to reinforce just how resilient man’s best friend can be. That this dog in question was a Welsh corgi, a stubby legged herding dog from the British Isles, is all the more unbelievable. This is not a breed known for prowess in snow, or for being a ski companion, but being a herding dog, a Corgi does have tenacity and endurance, two skills that would be critical to surviving four days under thousands of pounds of snow, not to mention digging out of it and walking to safety.
I bring this up today because a blog entry I read this morning pointed out one thing that might have helped Oly in his ordeal. Scientists at Yamazaki Gakuen University in Japan were seeking to understand why it is that dogs are able to walk on snow and ice without discomfort despite their paws being naked of fur and having a high surface-to-volume ratio, which allows for more rapid heat loss. Using electron microscopy, the scientists found
that dogs have a network of tiny veins (known as venules) connected to the arteries in their lower extremities that serve as a “counter-current” heat exchange system; basically, blood is diverted into these venules and warmed before recirculating back into the body, preventing hypothermia and keeping the paws themselves from freezing. This is the same system utilized by Antarctic penguins and dolphins, as well as Arctic foxes and, as the blog’s author wisely observes, is probably an indicator that the evolution of wolf-to-dog happened, at least in part, in a place where such a trait would have been critical.
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