The Arctic Fox

Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus) or is it Vulpes lagopus?

The arctic fox (Alopex lagopus) is a small (3-4 kg) carnivore with a circumpolar distribution. The species is characteristic of the arctic but is also found as south as in Iceland where the species is the only native terrestrial mammal.
The arctic foxes of Iceland are true descendants of the ice age as they remained at the island as the ice cap redraw towards north thousands of years ago. The arctic foxes are truly an important part of the poor fauna of Icelandic nature and have become quite well adapted to the unfriendly climate and sparsely available resources.

The arctic foxes are found in two colour morphs, the "white" and the "blue". The white foxes are almost completely white in the winter but bi-coloured in the summer, dorsally brownish and ventrally whitish. The blue morph is dark brown and keeps its colour throughout the year but the sun bleaches the colour in late winter so it´s not easy to distinguish the colours in that time of the year. The white colour results from recessive allele, so blue parents can have both white and blue pups. White parents, however, have only white pups and mixed pairs have mixed pups. The summer and winter looks are totally different as the thick winter fur makes the foxes look chubby and short legged whereas in the summer, the animal looks slim and long-legged.

The arctic foxes are found throughout Iceland but the density is probably highest in the Westfjords. The region has some of the largest bird cliffs of the country and proportionally longest coastline. It is likely that food availability is the most important explanatory factor in determining density but winter food is extremely important for sustaining the population. In many other countries, the arctic foxes feed mainly on lemmings (Lemmus sp.), that are medium sized rodents and important food resource for arctic predators. There are no lemmings in Iceland and no competitive carnivores so the Icelandic arctic foxes have quite general food habits. The main food resources are birds and eggs, carrion, invertebrates and berries. Since the food abundance is highly seasonal, the foxes cache food for the winter. The coast is very important and a stable resource of edible things, such as carrion and various invertebrates, throughout the year.

Icelanders have given the arctic fox many names which could be related to the "mythological battle" between the humans and the foxes since the early decades of the settlement, 1100 years ago. At first, foxes were trapped for the valuable fur but soon the competition for the few resources became too complicated and the foxes were killed to protect lambs and other stock animals. Nowadays the foxes are still hunted throughout the country, where it is believed that protection of livestock or eider farms is needed. Winter hunting is also conducted in all regions of the country and "den-hunting" (killing all the animals at a fox den), one of the oldest paid jobs in Iceland, is still performed. The fur, however, is not used anymore since it became priceless with the emergence of fur farms some decades ago.

The Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is one of the few regions where the arctic foxes are protected in Iceland. The protection took place in the spring 1994 but until then, organized "den-hunting" had been performed for many centuries. Due to the protection, the arctic foxes in Hornstrandir have become tame and curious of the people passing by during the summer. Likewise, the tourists are interested in the foxes and their photogenic nature.