Known as a majestic animal of the Arctic, the Arctic fox is the only mammal native to Iceland!
At the end of the last ice age, it walked across the frozen sea up to the North Atlantic island and settled there. Here, they adapted their physiology and behavior to thrive in cold climates. Their pristine white fur is proof of this!
But did you know Arctic foxes aren’t always white? They change color depending on the season. It makes them cunning predators, with the ability to smell prey from miles away. They can even hear them burying underground!
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Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish taxonomist, was the first to catalog the Arctic fox as Canis Lagopus. As scientists gathered more information, they changed it to Vulpes Lagopus.
Vulpes means “fox” in Latin, and Lagopus, in Greek, means “hare” and “foot”. By putting them together, you get the hairy-foot fox, which suits them for the extra thick fur on their feet.
The Arctic fox has many other names. People call them the snow, white or polar foxes. The indigenous people of the Arctic region have a captivating label for the Arctic fox. They call it Tiriganiarjuk, which means “the white one”.
Appearance and Size
The Arctic foxes are very small mammals and are considerably cat-sized. There isn’t much difference in size between genders. Among their species, females are only slightly smaller. In some areas, you can’t tell the difference between them.
Males reach up to 22 inches (55 cm) and females up to 20 inches (52 cm). They are as big as medium-sized dogs, with an average height of 10 to 12 inches (25-30 cm). Females weigh up to 7 pounds (3 kg), and males 20 pounds (9 kg).
Arctic foxes have two different coats depending on the season. During winter, they have their famous white fur. They start shedding as early as April and get short brown or gray pelt. By November, their luxurious white coat is back.x`
This change of coat is a defense mechanism. They use it to blend in with their environment, making predators unable to spot them. Changing fur colors also helps them transform into stealth assassins to hunt better.
Where do Arctic Foxes Live?
Arctic foxes are predominant in many places. This includes: the Arctic, northern Europe, northern Asia, North America, Greenland, and Iceland. In North America, they live in western Alaska through northern Canada.
Their habitats include the Arctic tundra, coastal areas, ice floes, and the north of the tree line. They live in underground dens and occasionally make tunnels into snowbanks.
What do Arctic Foxes Eat?
The Arctic is a harsh place where food is often scarce. This environment turned the Arctic fox into an opportunistic feeder. They will eat anything they find, dead or alive. In summer, they usually eat lemmings, voles, and other rodents.
Additionally, foxes with dens near rock cliffs eat seabirds. This includes puffins, auklets, and murres.
If food is plentiful, they will bury it for later feedings. They also resort to extreme measures to not starve, including eating their feces. Their diet varies so much that they can also eat berries, seaweed, and eggs.
Arctic foxes are capable of going great distances to find food. They can also use sea ice to move around. There is even a record of an Arctic fox from coastal Russia that traveled to Wainwright, Alaska.
The Arctic has cold winters reaching -58℉ (-50℃) and cool summers with temperatures around 32℉ (0 ℃). Arctic foxes can survive a temperature difference of 180℉ (100 ℃) between the external environment and the body temperature.
How do foxes do it? To keep themselves warm, they turn into a “bagel” by curling their limbs and heads under their bodies. Windy weather forces them to hide in their dens to preserve body heat.
They also store body fat by eating more prey to survive those harsh winter nights. An Arctic fox’s weight can go up 50% during autumn hunts. In fact, they don’t need to hibernate because they’re warm enough for below-zero temperatures.
Other adaptations include reducing their activities to the minimum to prevent heat loss. The extra thick layer of fat keeps them insulated. It’s also a source of energy when they can’t find food.
Arctic Foxes and Polar Bears
When food is scarce, they usually follow polar bears and eat their leftovers. It’s considerably risky behavior because bears eat foxes.
Arctic Foxes and Red Foxes
Global warming affects every part of the globe. The Arctic is no exception.
Due to warmer climates, red foxes slowly extended their reach. This led to them becoming inhabitants of the Arctic. Since they’re bigger, they can win any direct competition for food. Also, red foxes will attack and eat their Arctic counterparts!
While the red fox might compete for food, the Arctic fox is the true ruler of the North. It has adaptations to survive cold winter nights and uses its body fat to endure without food.
The Arctic fox, being heavier, needs more food and burns more energy to hunt.
Arctic foxes are nomads. They can travel great distances during their migration. They’re known to usually travel in packs. Scientists noticed that Alaska’s foxes migrate during fall or early winter seawards. When spring comes, they come back.
Arctic foxes have complex communication systems. They make a high-pitched sound to warn of danger, such as predators arriving. When they want to communicate with each other across great distances, the wild fox uses a loud yowl. Listen below to one talking!
Like dogs, foxes are territorial creatures, so they mark their area. They communicate through scents, and they use a combination of feces and urine. They also rub themselves on things to leave their scent.
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Mating and Reproduction
Mating happens during spring when the snow melts and nature comes back to life. The reproduction rate depends on the lemming population density. When food is plenty, the litter can contain up to 18 pups. The gestation period is almost two months, up to 52 days.
When food is scarce, both parents are primarily monogamous and take care of the pups. When prey is abundant, they are more promiscuous. They form complex social structures where everybody takes care of the pups.
The pups or kits emerge from the den at three weeks old and begin their hunting adventures at three months. They usually reach sexual maturity at ten months, but most don’t survive their first year.
Growth and Lifespan
The wild Arctic fox lives a short and dangerous life. They live between three to six years due to food shortages and predators. In captivity, their life cycle doubles. However, this is because all dangerous elements cease to exist.
Arctic Fox Adaptations
The most significant feature of the Arctic fox is its thick white winter coat. It offers the best insulation for a mammal living in intense climates.
Such dense pelts enable them to live with less food and be active all year round. They are the only canids with fur on their feet, so they can easily walk on snow or ice. It’s complete winter gear!
Another way they adapted to these frigid extremes is through their tiny bodies. They’re smaller and shorter than any other fox to preserve body heat.
Climate change leads to ice melting in some areas in the Arctic. This especially affects the Arctic foxes. As the weather gets warmer, these foxes lose their camouflage skills. The color of their fur no longer matches their surroundings.
It makes them more susceptible to predators, and they can no longer sneak up on prey. Scientists predict that foxes will adapt the color of their fur over time. Alternatively, they could lose their white coats altogether.
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Population and Conservation Status
Arctic foxes were listed since 2004 on the Red List of Threatened Species. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists them as a least concern. Many polar foxes live in the Arctic, but their situation can change drastically.
The population of white foxes in the Scandinavian mainland is considered endangered. The adult population consists of less than 200 individuals. The numbers do fluctuate over the years due to food density. However, climate change also contributes to their numbers decreasing.
Arctic Fox Predators
What animals make dinner out of foxes? Their common predators include polar bears, grizzly bears, wolves, and humans. When the hunting territories overlap, red foxes will hunt Arctic foxes.
Natives still hunt these foxes for food resources. However, commercial hunting is not allowed. There are still illegal hunts, unfortunately. This is due to fur trappers and their demand for luxurious and warm coats.
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The Inuit people usually hunted the polar fox for its meat and coat. In 1960, the natives focused on using their fur for neck warmers and sold pelts to make money. The Arctic fox became a salient economic resource. When metal traps were invented, people used them to hunt Arctic foxes.
Arctic foxes are more than their fur. Scientists also discovered that these furry animals cultivate gardens around their dens.
It happens when the organic waste from their prey makes the area more fertile. This creates dune grasses, willows, and wildflowers. More so, many other local species benefit from the altered environment.
Arctic Fox Facts
To catch its prey, the Arctic fox keeps a few tricks up its sleeve. It can carefully pinpoint the prey’s location in a matter of seconds. Then, it jumps midair and nosedives to catch it.
When they encounter predators, they often play dead to avoid being eaten. Even when caught by surprise, their defense mechanism immediately kicks in.
The longest solo journey ever recorded was between Spitsbergen and Ellesmere Island. Spitsbergen is a place in Norway, while Ellesmere is located in Canada. A female polar fox traveled more than 2,100 miles (3,500 km) in 76 days. It is the fastest movement recorded for this species.
They also have one of the most complex den systems out there. Some dens are centuries old and used by multiple generations. Some even have over 150 entrances! It certainly makes you wonder if they ever get lost.
How rare is an Arctic fox?
The Arctic fox is relatively abundant in the Arctic. There are several hundred thousands of them spread across the Arctic. However, their population fluctuates depending on the food source.
What’s the difference between blue foxes and Arctic foxes?
Blue foxes represent 1% of the total Arctic fox population, and they get this color due to their blue gene. They are very different in terms of fur, prey, and living areas.
Do polar bears eat Arctic foxes?
Yes, polar bears do prey on Arctic foxes. Especially when foxes follow them for food scraps.
Do Arctic foxes eat penguins?
No, they do not eat penguins because they don’t live in the same place. Penguins live in the Antarctic while these foxes stay in the Arctic circle.
Can Arctic foxes breed with other fox species?
There have been cases where Arctic foxes mated with red foxes. However, this rarely occurs because they are natural enemies that compete for food.