9: The Arctic Fox

For a bit of a change this week I thought that rather than looking at a particular issue or concept, we could give a bit of a spotlight to an Arctic creature. Polar bears get all the media coverage, and reindeer get lots of love each Christmas, so I thought we could take a look at the slightly less appreciated but still super cool Arctic fox. Below is some basic details about them, cute pictures, and then some info about an interesting Arctic fox conservation programme going on in northern Europe. Also, the conservation folks have made an excellent story video about an Arctic fox romance so definitely take a look at that below!

Yes, this article will be littered with cute photos of fluffy things. Here’s an Arctic fox to kick us off! Photo: Tom Walker/Getty Images

Fjällräven

The Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) is often underappreciated, though to be fair it has inspired an entire outdoor gear brand in Sweden (Fjällräven being the Swedish word for ‘The Arctic Fox’). It’s an impressive little critter found across northern Europe, Asia and North America. It is, as it’s name suggests, a relative of foxes, though it is smaller at 76-110cm in length. They are incredibly hardy creatures and stay active throughout winter unlike many other Arctic mammals, such as the polar bear who hibernates. To survive in the cold they have very compact bodies which reduces heat loss (which if you think of the opposite, elephants have massive ears potentially to help them release as much heat as possible in the toasty Savannah). They also have incredibly warm fur which is made up of many layers which trap air to insulate them, so much so that they won’t shiver until temperatures of -70oc (-94 o F). Under this they have a layer of cosy fat. As there is less food around in winter, the Arctic foxes make the most of summer and try to put on as much weight as possible.

Their diet is mostly made up of lemmings, as well as other small creatures like hares, birds and bird eggs, and fish. They are scavangers so if they come across a carcass that something else has killed they will make the most of that too. They’re also not opposed to a bit of greenery, and will eat seaweed, berries and other plants. Apart from battling the elements, Arctic foxes also have to watch out for wolves which sometimes attack their underground dens, and in warmer regions Arctic foxes are sometimes preyed on by red foxes from the south. Sometimes when the food situation is dire, polar bears may go after them as well.

A map on the left showing in blue where in the world Arctic foxes are found, and the famous Fjällräven brand whose logo is a curled up Arctic fox. I’m not being paid to advertise here… but Fjällräven if you’re reading I’ll happily take some free kit 😉 Photo: IUCN and Fjällräven

Hunting and Stealth

Arctic foxes have a few special behaviours they have developed to help them survive the frosty north.  As said before, they are partly scavengers, so will sometimes follow larger predators and snack on the leftovers of their kills. Other times its nice to have some fresh food, and so especially in winter they will try to hunt lemmings. The lemmings run around in tiny tunnels under the snow, so the foxes lie in wait above the snow surface, listening carefully until they hear the lemmings beneath the snow. Once they can hear where they are, the Arctic fox strikes! Well, that sounds a bit more graceful than it is. This striking involves what can only be described as faceplanting the snow, but it works so who am I to judge! I’ve attached a video at the bottom where David Attenborough narrates this process to us as a young Arctic fox learns to hunt.

An important part of hunting is stealth, and so to be stealthy you must blend in. Most Arctic foxes are of the ‘white’ type, meaning their fur is white in winter time and changes to brown in summer time. This means in winter they blend in with snow while in summer they can blend in with woody shrubs and earthy colours around them, making them harder for both predator and prey to spot. There is another type of Arctic fox, the ‘blue’ type. They are dark blue, grey or brown year round. This is not so good in terms of hiding during winter, which might be why it’s a rarer trait.

On the left the ‘blue’ Arctic fox, not blending into it’s snowy surroundings. On the right a lemming and it’s little snow tunnel. For the record no lemmings don’t commit mass suicide- this was something made up in an old Disney film and the myth has somehow lasted. Photos: Wikimedia commons and David Gibbon

Conservation

Arctic foxes are doing quite well in number around the world, and are ranked as ‘least concern’ by the IUCN, a group which ranks how endangered species are from a range of ‘least concern’ to ‘extinct’. They have been hunted in the past for their luscious furs, and there are attempts to eradicate them from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska where they were introduced but then wreaked havoc by eating lots of bird eggs so causing problems for the bird populations there.

Whilst all is good generally with the Arctic foxes, there is a bit of concern for their numbers in northern Europe. In Finland, Sweden and Norway their number is extremely low, partly due to high levels of hunting in the past. There has been a hunting ban on them in all three countries since 1940s, but their population recovery is slow. One reason is that lemmings, their main winter food source, are a little unstable themselves. Lemmings follow a natural cycle every 3-4 years where their population explodes in number and then drops very quickly, meaning the Arctic foxes can’t always count on the lemmings being there.

There is lots of hope though! One amazing group called Felles fjellrev have being doing research on Arctic foxes in Scandinavia and is testing out lots of conservation ideas like supplementary feeding of the Arctic foxes in the wild, and there are other breeding programmes happening so fingers crossed for their success!

Logo of Felles Fjellrev on the left, and on the right a ‘white’ Arctic fox shedding it’s winter fur in spring. Pictures: Felles Fjellrev and Russ Kinne

Some excellent videos

I hope you found that little intro to Arctic foxes interesting. I would very much recommend watching the Storm and Tinde video below as it was made by the Felles Fjallrev folks and is quite an entertaining and creative way of teaching about Arctic foxes. Then as promised Mr Attenborough’s link is below because, you know, no one can teach us about wildlife like him. Thanks David! Otherwise, I hope you have a lovely day. Bye!

For more info:

History of Arctic Foxes in Europe: http://www.fellesfjellrev.se/wp-content/uploads/The-Arctic-fox-in-Scandinavia.pdf

Arctic fox hunting lemmings (well, faceplanting snow) with David Attenborough: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0EiV-ERKRRs

Podcast music from kongano.com

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