13 Animals of the Arctic

Snowy owl in a snowbank

Ondrej Prosicky / Getty Images 

Though the subzero temperatures and rugged boreal forests may seem bleak and unforgiving, many species thrive in the frigid tundra of the Arctic Circle.

Some of these animals you will have seen before, like the polar bear or the snowy owl, while others are more exotic, like the "unicorn of the sea" or the Canada lynx.

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Wolverine

A wolverine in the snow

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What comes to mind when you think of a wolverine? A ferocious wolf-like animal? In reality, these creatures are members of the weasel family, more akin to the river otter. Unlike the comic book superhero that bears the same name, the wolverine does not have retractable metal claws. It does, however, have semitretractable claws, but these are most often used for digging and climbing, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.

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Canada Lynx

Canada Lynx

Michael Zahra / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The lynx is a lesser-known feline that is typically small in size. The Canada lynx has long legs and broad paws that make walking through thick snow easier. They primarily hunt snowshoe hares, a cousin of the Arctic hare.

The Canada lynx became extinct in Colorado in the 1970s, though the creatures were successfully reintroduced in the area. Today, the IUCN Red List classifies the Canada lynx as "least concern" and the population as stable.

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Tundra Swan

Tundra swan

Judy Gallagher / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

The tundra swan, also called the whistling swan due to the sound made by its wings, migrates to Alaska each spring to build its nest and lay eggs. In the fall, this species migrates to the Northeast U.S., along the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to Maryland. During migration and in the winter, the tundra swan feeds from open fields. The tundra swan tends to nest near open water on sites with good visibility.

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Arctic Hare

Arctic hare in Canadian Arctic

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These striking creatures can be found in Arctic regions of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. In the winter months, the Arctic hare's coat turns white, allowing it to blend in with the snow, but in the summer, the coat is generally a gray-brown color.

The largest hare in North America, the Arctic hare lives primarily in the tundra and in mountainous areas with plenty of cover. The Arctic hare is not considered threatened or endangered species in the U.S.

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Red Fox

Red fox

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The red fox is by no means unique to the Arctic Circle. In fact, it can be found on every continent on the globe except Antarctica. Unfortunately, it is considered a menace in many ecosystems. In Australia, for example, the red fox was introduced by humans for recreational hunting in 1855 and it quickly became established in the wild. About 150 years later, the Arctic fox threatens a number of bird and mammal populations native to Australia.

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Beluga Whale

Beluga whale

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This celebrated white whale can be found in the icy waters of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Russia, and the IUCN Redlist status of the general beluga whale population is "least concern."

In the U.S., beluga whales are only found in Alaska, where just five populations of these special whales still exist. Conservation of the Cook Inlet population, one of the few beluga populations that do not migrate, is listed as "endangered" and is protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

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Polar Bear

Polar bear

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The polar bear is known by several names, including "nanook," "nanuq," "ice bear," "sea bear" and "Isbjorn." These majestic white bears are listed as "vulnerable" and are protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Their diet consists primarily of seals, as polar bears require large amounts of fat. Polar bears are found in the Arctic in Canada, the U.S. (Alaska), Russia, Greenland, and Norway (Svalbard). The live primarily in remote, coastal regions.

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Caribou

Woodland caribou

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The woodland caribou — also known as reindeer when domesticated — can be found in northern and southern Alaska, Canada, Russia, and Greenland. The caribou are the only deer species in which both the female and male have antlers. Caribou, which are migratory animals, are classified as "vulnerable." With a primary diet of lichens, caribou travel out in the open during winter where they are more likely to find their source of food.

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Narwhal

Pod of narwhals

Dr. Kristin Laidre, Polar Science Center, UW NOAA/OAR/OER  / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Called the "unicorn of the sea" because of the long (sometimes up to 10 feet) tusk protruding from its jaw, this unique Arctic creature can be found swimming in the waters of Norway, Russia, Greenland, and Canada. Hunting and breeding patterns of narwhals are still a mystery to scientists, though we do know that they use their tusks to prepare their food and stun their prey. The IUCN Red List classifies these sea creatures as "least concern." The narwhal diet varies by locale, but consists mostly of halibut, cod, shrimp, and squid.

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Snowy Owl

Snowy owl in flight

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Snowy owls are the largest birds found in the Arctic. They have unpredictable migration patterns, and can occasionally be found in areas as far south as the northern U.S. As owlets (baby owls), the snowy owl's feathers are gray. When fully grown, their feathers are pure white, offering camouflage in winter. The primary diet of these owls includes small mammals and lemmings. The snowy owl is also the same owl species as Harry Potter's famous pet, Hedwig.

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Arctic Fox

Arctic fox

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The Arctic fox can be found in most Arctic ecosystems in the Northern Hemisphere, including Iceland where it is the only native land mammal. It arrived in Iceland during the last Ice Age, where it journeyed over the frozen water to the volcanic island. This fox species is classified as "least concern" in most regions, but is endangered in Scandinavia where it has been strictly protected for decades.

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Atlantic Puffin

Atlantic puffin

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This memorable creature, also known as the common puffin, is related to the extinct great auk. The Atlantic puffin can be found in northern Europe, the Arctic Circle, Newfoundland, and parts of Maine. This seabird spends most of its time over the water, where it dives for fish and squid. The pronounced bill is a marker of the breeding season, when the birds can be seen on dry land in the spring and summer.

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Great Auk

Great auk

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The great auk is now extinct, but it was the original penguin, as it was the first flightless bird with that name. It lived in the waters of the North Atlantic, particularly Canada, Greenland, and Iceland, as well as Scandinavia and the British Isles, and as far south as New England. Outside of breeding season, great auk's are believed to have spent most of their time at sea. Hunting drove the great auk to extinction sometime in the 1800s.

There are no penguins in the Arctic today. Modern-day penguins live only in the Southern Hemisphere.