Arctic foxes are 'ecosystem engineers' who grow beautiful gardens

Charles Barilleaux
CC BY 2.0 Charles Barilleaux

We often think of gardening as a uniquely human endeavour. Yet, you may be surprised to discover that other animals -- from ants, to termites and bowerbirds -- also engage in a kind of gardening. Biologists from University of Manitoba, Canada also point to the Arctic fox as yet another furry animal who, thanks to their natural behaviour, cultivate green gardens around their dens in the otherwise desolate tundra.

The scientists' findings, published in Scientific Reports, describe how organic waste from the foxes and their kills make the area surrounding their dens more fertile, leading to almost three times as many dune grasses, willows and wildflowers to sprout up, compared to the rest of the tundra. Says University of Manitoba associate professor of biology James Roth, one of the paper's authors:

It's really striking. You can see these dens in August as a bright green spot from a kilometre away. It's such a dramatic contrast between the bright, green vegetation around the dens and the tundra around it.

Jackie VerstegeJackie Verstege/via

This blush of greenery around the fox dens then lure other plant-eating animals like caribou, lemmings and hares. Scavenging creatures such as polar bears, wolves, gulls and ravens are drawn by the carcasses of prey left by foxes as well, meaning that there's even more extra nutrients from the feces and urine left by all these visitors, creating even more verdant fox dens.

What's striking is that these dens have a history too: the team points to almost 100 fox dens in the broader region around Hudson Bay, some of which may be hundreds of years old. This is because foxes will often opt to reuse the same dens over many generations, which would explain why the land surrounding them becomes so green over time.

Jackie VerstegeJackie Verstege/via

The team also previously found that the plants growing around the dens exhibited more nutrient and water content. According to the CBC, the scientists are calling Arctic foxes "ecosystem engineers" -- similar to how beavers might create dams, altering their environment in a way that benefits other local species. As Roth explains:

[The foxes are] bringing nutrients from the prey items all around and bringing them back to their nests to feed their pups. You can tell which dens are successful in producing pups because of all the dead stuff on the dens.

Who would have thought the wily fox to be such a prolific and talented gardener? To read more, visit Scientific Reports.

Tags: Animals | Arctic | Endangered Species | Gardening | Nature Blows My Mind

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