13 Animals of the Arctic

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Life in the Tundra

Photo: critterbiz/Shutterstock

Most of us will never visit the Arctic Circle — and the residents of this northernmost region are perfectly happy with that. We're not talking about Eskimos; we're talking about the animals that call the Arctic home. 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 (pictured), while others are more exotic, like the "unicorn of the sea" or the Canada lynx.

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Wolverine

Photo: Uusijani/Wikimedia Commons

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

Photo: Michael Zahra/Wikimedia Commons

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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has them listed as "threatened" in the lower 48 states.

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Tundra Swan

Photo: Judy Gallagher//Wikimedia Commons

The tundra swan 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.

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Arctic Hare

Photo: Michael Haferkamp/Wikimedia Commons

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 a gray-brown color.

The Arctic hare is not considered a threatened or endangered species in the U.S.

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Red Fox

Photo: Pierre Williot/Shutterstock

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 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

Photo: JohnL/Shutterstock

This celebrated white whale can be found in the icy waters of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia, though the population in each of these countries is considered threatened.

Beluga whales are only found in the U.S. in Alaska, and only five populations of beluga whales still exist there. Conservation of the Cook Inlet population, one of the few beluga populations that do not migrate, recently became listed as critical and is protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

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Polar Bear

Photo: outdoorsman/Shutterstock

The polar bear is also known by the names "nanook," "nanuq," "ice bear," "sea bear" and "isbj." These majestic white bears are listed as "threatened" and protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Their diet consists primarily of seals, and because of this, they live in mostly coastal areas.

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Caribou

Photo: fl223/Wikimedia Commons

The woodland caribou — also known as reindeer when domesticated — can be found in northern and southern Alaska, Canada, Russia and Greenland. This is the only deer species in which both the female and male have antlers.

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Narwhal

Photo: Dr. Kristin Laidre, Polar Science Center, UW NOAA/OAR/OER [Public domain}/Wikimedia Commons

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 Greenland and Canada. Hunting and breeding patterns of narwhals are still a mystery to scientists, though we do know that their tusks aren't used for hunting. Their diet consists mostly of squid.

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Snowy Owl

Photo: Silver Leapers [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

Snowy owls are one of the only birds that live in the Arctic year round and do not migrate. When snowy owls are fully grown, their feathers are pure white, but when they are owlets (or baby owls), their feathers are gray. The snowy owl is also the same owl species as Harry Potter's famous pet, Hedwig.

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Arctic Fox

Photo: Ignatiev Alexandr/Shutterstock

The Arctic fox can be found in most Arctic ecosystems in the Northern Hemisphere, even in 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 endangered in Scandinavia where it has been strictly protected for decades.

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Great Auk

Photo: Nicolas Primola/Shutterstock

The great auk 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, and was found as far south as New England. Hunting drove the great auk to extinction sometime in the 1800s.

Modern-day penguins live only in the Southern Hemisphere.

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Atlantic Puffin

Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch

This memorable creature, also known as the common puffin, is related to the extinct auk mentioned in the previous slide — but it is alive and well and 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.