The Arctic fox, also known as the ‘white fox, polar fox, or snow fox’ is one of the most characteristic species native to the Arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere and is common throughout. It is well adapted to living in cold, harsh environments and is perhaps, best known for its beautiful winter-white pelage (fur) that also provides useful camouflage.
Arctic foxes are small, incredibly hardy animals well adapted to life in some of the coldest areas on earth, where frigid Arctic temperatures often dip below -50F. They have short legs, fury soles to the feet, short rounded-ears, a stubby muzzle and a thick bushy tail, which offers a warm cover when sleeping, which minimises the heat loss through these parts of the body. In winter, they are well equipped with an excellent insulating winter-fur, which is extremely thick with a dense under-coat covered with long outer hairs.
About the size of a large domestic cat, the Arctic fox is the smallest species of the dog family (Canidae). They are omnivorous, as well as scavengers, seeking a variety of prey; small mammals, birds and their eggs, even fish. In winter their prey can be scarce, prompting Arctic foxes to apply their ’cunning’ nature as they follow in the footsteps of the apex predator, the polar bear, to feed on any leftover scraps from its kills. They are primary solitary creatures, living nomadic lives during the winter, but can be found in small social groups, especially whenever food is readily plentiful.
One of the most accessible locations, and high on my list of favourite places to photograph Arctic foxes, is the remote area of Hornstrandir in the far northwest of Iceland, an amazing place where I hope to return soon.
Whilst no one is certain as to the origin of the Arctic Fox in Iceland, it is thought they first travelled here during the last ice-age, when sea-ice created a ‘land’ bridge between Europe, Iceland and Greenland. As the climate warmed and the ice-sheets retreated, foxes that had made the journey to reach Iceland were trapped, making them the only native land mammal in Iceland today.
Over thousands of years living and breeding in isolation the Icelandic foxes have evolved a unique colour trait from those found in wider populations present throughout the Arctic regions. In most parts of the Arctic, where the terrain has been primarily a frozen snow-covered tundra, 99% of the fox population maintain a dominant white-colour morph. When the seasons change, so the fox’s coat turns as well. During the short summer months, they either have a blue-grey or chocolate-brown pelage to match the earthy, lichen covered ground. Only during the long, winter months does its’ coat become a beautiful white pelt blending into the extensive snowy and ice-crusted landscape. In Iceland, the fox population had a much smaller and perhaps, less diverse gene-pool and living on the dark volcanic coastal landscape, mainly devoid of snow for most of the year, it is likely the white has mutated into a darker blue-colour morph and remains dark or charcoal coloured all year round, but becomes somewhat lighter in winter. The blue morph form may appear more common on coastal areas, inland the white fox is still very much present in the landscape.
There are six other species that live within the Arctic that also change their fur or feathers to adapt to seasonal conditions: Arctic hares, weasels, Peary caribou, collared lemmings, Siberian hamsters and ptarmigan. Scientists believe this phenomenon is not necessarily an evolutionary factor to do with camouflage, as other northern animals such as polar bears or snowy owls, do not change colour with the season. One theory is the lack of melatonin, the cause of pale plumage, leaves more space in the hair/feather shafts which allows for better insulating properties.
Once encountered, their playful nature makes the Arctic fox a very endearing creature, especially the young cubs, that have a “mischievous personality”, a characteristic trait that gives rise to the nickname ‘clowns of the tundra’.