The Arctic Fox is aptly named, because it is found throughout the Arctic tundra and even out on sea ice, although it also inhabits some marginal SubArctic and alpine areas. It is a small species of fox, averaging approximately one meter (about three feet) in length with a weight of 3-9 kg (7-20 lbs). Adult males are considerably larger and heavier than females. It has a different overall body shape when compared to other fox species throughout the world, including relatively short legs, a shorter snout, small and rounded ears, and a small body covered by a thick, well-insulated fur, including even the bottoms of the feet. These are typical adaptations to a cold environment, which aid in reducing loss of body heat.
In many parts within its range, Arctic fox populations have been greatly reduced through hunting and trapping for their valuable fur. They also are being forced out of traditional inhabited areas by red foxes, which have spread their range in recent decades. In Scandinavia, it is generally rare and endangered, but in the Svalbard Archipelago there is a healthy population. Arctic foxes are widespread among the islands and we frequently see them along the coastal regions when we make landings.
It is also known as the white fox, polar fox, snow fox, and even blue fox in some areas. In Svalbard, the Arctic fox can be found in two color morphs…white and blue. The white morph is actually only white during Winter, and for the rest of the year is mottled with brown and yellow colors. The blue fox is not really a brilliant blue, but rather a mixture of dark brown and gray-blue, which it maintains year round.
The Arctic fox can often be seen scrounging along coastlines looking for food near the tide line. It is a carnivore, like all foxes, and will eat a variety of foods, including crabs and fish on the shore, birds, baby ringed seals, carrion, and even polar bear feces. And, berries produced by the tiny tundra plants. It often associates itself with bird breeding areas, especially the very productive cliff sites, where eggs and chicks, as well as the occasional adult can be caught for an easy meal. Arctic foxes will cache food when it is abundant during the Summer in preparation for the long and difficult Winter. Unlike other fox species, the Arctic fox actually builds up its body fat reserve during the short Summer (rather a bear). They have the ability to hear and/or sniff out prey under snow and punch through the surface to capture it. The furred soles of their feet make it easier to walk on ice, which they need to do when they follow polar bears in hopes of scavenging from their kills.
They form monogamous pairs during the breeding season and both parents help raise the young. Mating takes place between February and April, and the young (usually 5-8 in number, but can be many more) are born in May and June. The pups are born and raised in underground dens, often located near bird cliffs. By the age of 3 to 4 weeks, the pups begin to play outside the den. Sometimes, offspring from previous litters will stay with the parents and help raise their younger siblings. They have a rather high reproductive rate, especially if not over-harvested by the fur industry, but their populations often fluctuate dramatically from year to year, because in much of their range they are almost totally dependent on lemmings for food. The population dynamics of lemmings therefore directly affect the population dynamics of Arctic foxes. Sadly, in addition to all the trapping, hunting, and natural dangers they endure, their populations are sometimes drastically impacted by diseases introduced to them by domestic dogs.
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