Fantastic arctic foxes defy the odds in Iceland

Arctic fox
© Erlend Haarberg via bioGraphic

A host of adaptations have allowed these cunning creatures to thrive, despite the challenges.

In the hierarchy of cuteness in which we humans love to arrange things, foxes usually rank pretty high. Their vulpine attributes bring to mind both dogs and cats, which makes them feel familiar to us; toss in those expressive faces, bushy tails and sly goings-on … and their irresistibility is clinched.

Now perhaps this is just the musings of a city girl (read: someone whose food is not imperiled by hungry foxes and doesn’t rely on the fur trade), but it’s hard to believe that in some parts of the world, these wonderful creatures have nearly been hunted into extinction. What the heck?

Case in point, Iceland’s arctic foxes (Vulpes lagopus).

Foxes first found their way to Iceland, trekking over the sea ice, around 10,000 years ago during the last Ice Age. Everything was likely fine for a while, until humans settlers came in the 10th century and started hunting them for their fur and to keep them away from livestock. For centuries, there was legislation actually requiring farmers to kill a certain number of foxes every year ... and even to take out whole dens.

By the time the government realized that mandatory poisoning of foxes was also causing the deaths of white-tailed eagles, in 1964, the foxes finally caught a break. By then, the population of arctic foxes had dwindled to a mere 1,000 to 1,300 members.

But now, things are looking up for Iceland’s foxes.

The fabulous site, bioGraphic (which kindly shared these incredible images with us), writes:

With the threat of poison eliminated, Iceland’s population of foxes began to recover in the 1970s. But the biggest win for the country’s oft-maligned predators came when Iceland established its first Ministry of the Environment in 1990. By 1994, the new Ministry had developed the first legislation to offer protection to arctic foxes: The Protection and Hunting of Wild Species Act. Today, hunting is still the main cause of mortality for Icelandic foxes; nearly half of all adults fall prey to hunters each year. But now, hunting licenses are required to shoot arctic foxes; poisoning is still prohibited; and fox populations are carefully monitored.

Today, there are around 8,000 arctic foxes in Iceland, and in places like Hornstrandir Nature Reserve on Iceland’s northwest coast, the foxes are fantastic. Here they are thriving; is it any wonder that scientists call the reserve, “The Kingdom of Arctic Foxes”?

But even without the threat of hunters and poison, life at the edge of the Arctic Circle has its challenges. Temperatures drop to frigid a -40 degrees during the dark winter months, with winds that kick up to a blustery 165 miles per hour. Many animals hightail it south for the winter, but the stoic foxes hang tough – thanks much in part to a number of physical and behavioral adaptations.

Their fur coats (which look much better on them than on humans, by the way), transform from light in the summer to three times thicker in the winter – “resulting in a coat that insulates better than any other mammal’s,” writes bioGraphic. And if that weren’t cozy enough, the fur extends to the soles of their feet to insulate from the bottom up.

To compensate for the lack of prey in the winter, they bulk up in the summer and also hunt in excess, storing their booty in subterranean caches. Dens have been found containing more than a hundred birds; the smart fox need not go hungry in the dark cold.

When things get especially extreme winter-wise, they nestle in their lairs; curled up like kitties with their legs beneath their bodies, all wrapped up in that fluffy tail for a blanket.

Even though they’ve come close to doom, these arctic foxes prove their moxie and resilience – especially once humans stopped trying to kill them all. bioGraphic notes:

Surely the species’ opportunistic tendencies, cleverness, and ability to adapt to extreme and highly variable environmental conditions have contributed to its success. For example, although the winter coats of arctic foxes in many regions of the world are bright white, in Hornstrandir, especially along the coast, as many as two-thirds of the foxes wear a very different color. Rather than trading their dark brown summer fur for white, a large portion of the population here has evolved to grow a winter coat typically described as blue-gray, which closely matches the volcanic sand that remains exposed throughout the winter here.

Now that they’ve got the extreme Arctic Circle winter thing all figured out – the next challenge might be in undoing some of those adaptations. As climate change is heating things up in Iceland –the Arctic is warming up twice as fast as the global average, by some accounts – the arctic fox may need to put that resilience to test. What new challenges they may face are yet to be known; but if any creature can figure it out, I’d put my money on these fervent foxes. If they can survive a millennia of human persecution and Arctic winters, what’s a little climate change?

Photos by husband-and-wife team Erlend and Orsolya Haarberg, nature photographers based in Norway. You can see more of their beautiful work at Haarberg Nature Photography.

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