The Arctic Circle – the top of the world. One of the coldest, most desolate and harshest environments on the planet, yet some animals can thrive among this frozen habitat.
One such animal is one of the smallest members of the canine family. Measuring only 2 and half to 3 feet long including it’s 12 inch tail and weighing 10 to 20 pounds – the Arctic Fox is a cold weather survivor. Found throughout the circumpolar Arctic and sub-Arctic range they are also the only land mammal native to Iceland.
Famous for it’s bright white fur the Arctic Fox actually displays a gray or bluish-brown coat in the short summer months. This change in color allows them to blend in with the various surroundings as they hunt for food.
The Arctic Fox primarily feeds on lemmings – small rodent creatures found in the Arctic Tundra. In fact, the number of foxes in a region is relative to the size of a local lemming population. Using their excellent senses of hearing and smell, the foxes can locate their prey beneath the snow. They will also bury food underground or beneath stones to store during the winter months, since the foxes do not hibernate.
In addition to lemmings, Arctic Foxes will also feed on birds, invertebrates and occasionally fish. In the winter, when prey is scarce, arctic foxes will often scavenge from polar bear kills. In fact, Arctic Foxes are the only land mammal to venture as far north as the polar bear, often following them onto ice flows.
Arctic foxes are well adapted to extreme cold, some have even been spotted within 300 miles of the North Pole. Their winter coat is the densest and warmest of any land mammal and covers every part of their bodies, including the soles of their feet. This helps them to retain body heat, as do stubby legs, small ears and a small snout.
The fur on the bottom of their feet not only helps in keeping them warm but aids in traction while moving across wet and slippery surfaces such as the ice flows and snowy ground.
They use their bushy tails as muffs. During a blizzard, an Arctic fox can curl up in a tight ball, wrap its tail around itself, and be blanketed by snow. The snow actually acts as an insulator and the fur traps body heat even in the coldest temperatures – sometimes as cold as 50 degrees below Fahrenheit.
Arctic foxes are widespread throughout Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, where many different predators roam. Natural predators include red foxes, wolves, wolverines, and polar bears. Fox pups may be taken by birds of prey including snowy owls, and large hawks. The native people of the Far North also trap Arctic fox for their fur.
During the brief Arctic spring and summer, Arctic foxes move inland to mate and occupy extensive, communal summer dens. Generations of the same family of foxes often return to the same den each year. These large subterranean burrows will often contain up to 100 entrances and a complex tunnel system.
The foxes breeding season is February to May – they form monogamous pairs who may mate for life – the females will often give birth to up to 10 pups – more at times when food sources are plentiful. The foxes become mature within 10 months.
Small but swift, smart and resourceful – the Arctic Fox continues to thrive among one of the most difficult ecosystems on the planet.
Penguins have long been considered an iconic bird of the snowy ice caps of the world – but these small, flightless birds are only found in the Southern Hemisphere – never in the Arctic north.
There is, however, a small, black and white seabird with a similar build that can be found across the North Atlantic from Canada to Norway and south to Spain. They are the Atlantic Puffins. They stand nearly 10 inches tall and only weigh as much as a can of soda.
Like penguins, Puffins are capable swimmers. But unlike their southern counterparts, Puffins can fly, in fact puffins are capable of flight speeds up to 55mph with their wings flapping as much as 400 times a minute. Atlantic Puffins spend up to eight months on the open ocean, coming ashore only to breed from late April through August.
On land they waddle from side to side but underwater and they are quick and agile swimmers, using their wings for propulsion and their feet as a rudder.
Puffins feed on a variety of small fish including capelin, herring and cod. They often capture several fish during one dive, holding them crosswise in their bill. Backward-pointed spines on the roof of their mouth and tongue help keep the fish in place. Typically they may catch up to 10 fish on a single trip but one bird in Britain was observed with 62 fish in its beak.
While somewhat similar to penguins in appearance, puffins are actually part of the Alcid family which includes other flighted seabirds like murres. Unlike most birds, a puffins bones are not hollow so they are heavier than other birds allowing them to dive down to depths of 200 feet.
In addition to their stark black and white markings, the puffin’s have a light grey face with a multicolored grey, red and yellow bill. This stunning appearance lends them the nickname “sea parrot” by some, but their penguin-like waddle on land, stout bodies and brightly colored facial markings have also earned them the title “clowns of the sea.” The puffin bill will actually glow under UV light.
While much of their lives are spend out a sea, during the summer Atlantic Puffins nest in colonies on small islands covered in short vegetation, typically in the turf soil at the tops of steep, rocky cliffs. Some nests are placed in crevices or beneath boulders.
Breeding pairs – who usually mate for life – share the task of creating and maintaining their nest and they tend to reuse the burrow each year. With large populations of the seabirds coming together to form large nesting colonies. Nonbreeding birds at the colony often form flocks and spend hours flying in wide circular or figure-8 paths over the colony cliffs, a behavior called wheeling flight.
The greatest concentration of puffins in the world is found on the island nation of Iceland. With more than 8 million puffins inhabiting the island during the summer months, Iceland is home to more than of 60% the world’s entire Atlantic puffin population.
The Atlantic puffin is one of 4 puffin species. The others are found in the Northern Pacific ocean from the northern coast of Asia to California.
The Horned Puffin looks similar to the Atlantic Puffin though its bill is mostly yellow with and an orange tip and it lacks the grey coloration. The Horned Puffin receives its name from the horny projections that extend above its eyes.
The Tufted Puffin is the largest puffin and is characterized by long, straw-colored feathers that extend back from its crown during the mating season.
The rhinoceros auklet differs in outward appearance from the other three species of puffin but this brown feathered seabird is anatomically still a puffin. During the breeding season a pale knob projects from its upper beak giving a Rhinoceros horn-like appearance, its purpose is unknown.
Atlantic Puffins are silent at sea but on land males often give a pig-like grunt while flicking their head back to attract a female. In their breeding burrows they make a growling call.
Baby puffins are known as “pufflings.” While the chicks grow rapidly, after about six weeks it is fully developed and capable of caring for itself, they do not breed until they are 3 to 6 years old.
The Atlantic puffin is the official bird of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. The puffin is also the inspiration for the fictional Star Wars creature “the Porgs.”
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: puffin populations still number in the millions across the north Atlantic region but numbers in North America declined drastically in the 1800s and early 1900s. Due to heavy exploitation for eggs, meat, and feathers puffins disappeared entirely from the United States during this time. Thanks to the creation of protected areas and work to relocate young to former nesting islands by Steve Kress of the National Audubon Society, more than 2,000 puffins now breed again in the state of Maine.
In the long, dark and freezing winters of the Arctic, one nomad may be seen roaming vast distances across the floating sea ice of the Arctic Ocean. This massive creature may travel more than 15 miles in a day in search of prey. Feared and respected by northern cultures for ages – the lord of the Arctic is the Polar Bear.
It’s scientific name, Ursus maritimus – means sea bear, sometimes called the great white bear and to the indigenous Inuit tribes it is Nanuq (na-nook).
The Polar Bear can be found throughout the circumpolar arctic region crossing the boundaries of 5 countries: the United States, Russia, Greenland/Denmark, Norway and Canada (where more than 60% of the world’s polar bear population is found).
The polar bear is the largest land carnivore in the world – males may weigh up to 1300 pounds and when standing on their hind legs they may reach a height of over 10 feet. They are the most carnivorous of all bear species – feeding primarily on seals.
Ringed seals (the most abundant of seals in the Arctic Ocean) and the larger bearded seals are a necessary part of the polar bears diet – providing the bears with the necessary blubber to maintain their own 4 and half inch fat layer – essential for insulation and flotation.
Polar bears rely on sea ice to reach and hunt the aquatic mammals. The bears excellent sense of smell may help them detect seals gathering at ice holes several miles away. The bears will often lay in wait for several hours, even days until a seal emerges for air or to rest on the ice flow – then the bear will use its explosively quick attack to grab its prey.
When ice flows and seals are scarce, polar bears can swim long distances (sometimes as far as 60 miles) to other ice packs or land. They will also feed on other prey such as whale carcass found on shorelines, walrus as well as beluga and narwhal which may become trapped in ice packs – making for an easy hunt. They will also feed on birds, eggs and even vegetation – though none of these other dietary options are available consistently and do not provide the much needed fatty content of the seals.
When hunting is good and a polar bear’s body is in good condition, the bear may eat only the seal’s blubber and skin – leaving the remaining carcass for other animals such as the scavenging arctic fox.
Due to the extreme reliance on the ocean and the ice flows for travel and food the Polar Bear is classified as a marine mammal.
Made for life in the cold, harsh environment of the north – Polar bears have 2 thick layers of waterproof fur – a coarse top layer of long guard hairs and a softer undercoat – which covers their dark black skin. Polar bear fur is actually hollow and transparent – it is the reflection of sunlight through these air-filled hairs that give them the white appearance. The fur prevents almost all heat loss—in fact, adult males can quickly overheat when they run.
Their large paws may be up to 12 inches across, with 2 inch claws that aid not only in hunting but gripping, digging and swimming. The bottoms of their feet have fur to aid in insulation from the cold ice and their paw pads are covered in small bumps (called papillae) that help with traction on smooth, wet surfaces.
Unlike some bear species – Polar Bears do not hibernate – though they will make use of dens during harsh weather and for females preparing for birth. As winter approaches, pregnant females will begin building a maternity den where she will remain until the following spring. Cubs are born typically in December, they remain in the den for nearly five months and live with their mother for up to 3 years. During her entire time in the den—four to eight months—the mother doesn’t eat or drink, she simply provides for her cubs through nursing and grooming. The polar bear has the richest milk of any bear species, it contains 35 percent fat.
As part of international cooperation between governments, researchers and scientists – 19 regional populations of polar bears have been identified and designated. Several of those populations in the more southern areas of the Arctic are currently declining and at risk with the ongoing reduction of sea ice available for the bears, which are vital to the future of their balanced and delicate ecosystem.
Zoological facilities continue to play a very important role in the conservation of one of the planet’s most important and beloved species. They often provide homes for orphaned cubs and by taking part in key research studies that would otherwise be impossible to conduct with wild animals. Through modern, naturalistic habitat designs – polar bears are able to thrive in managed care and serve as ambassadors to educate a future generation of the importance of environmental responsibility.
Special thanks to the following organizations for their education, research and conservation programs that provided information for this episode:
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