Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus)

arctic-fox-portrait-winter-coat

  • Name: Arctic fox
  • Latin: Alopex lagopus
  • Classification: Mammal
  • Origin: Arctic Tundra
  • Lifespan: Up to 3 years
  • AKA: Polar fox, Snow fox, White fox

Taxonomy

  • Kingdom: Animalia (Animals)
  • Phylum: Chordata (Vertebrates)
  • Class: Mammalia (Mammals)
  • Order: Carnivora (Carnivores)
  • Family: Canidae (Canines)
  • Genus: Vulpes (True foxes)
  • Species: Vulpes (alopex) lagopus (Arctic fox)

Appearance

Length: 46-68cm (tail – 35cm)
Weight: 3-8kg

The arctic fox has a fluffy, thick coat which provides excellent insulation against the harsh cold of the arctic. They have small ears, fur covered feet and a small muzzle, which combined gives this canine a cat-like appearance.

Arctic foxes can shed their coats according to season. In the winter, their coat is a creamy colour with white markings. In the summer, their coat changes colour to greenish-yellow.

Winter coat
Winter coat
Summer coat
Summer coat

Relatives

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  • Grey Zorro (Lycalopex griseus) -LEAST CONCERN-
  • Swift Fox (Vulpes velox) -LEAST CONCERN-
  • Bengal Fox (Vulpes bengalensis) -LEAST CONCERN-
  • Bat-Eared Fox (Octocyon megalotis) -LEAST CONCERN-

Habitat & Distribution

Arctic foxes are specialised to be able to live and survive in the planets northern extremes. Their fur provides excellent insulation against the Polar Regions icy wastes. The only vegetation that grows here is a specialised, cold-loving algae that grows on the surface of the snow.

Arctic foxes are mostly found throughout the Arctic circle, along the coasts of North America, Europe and Asia. They have also been found in the Arctic archipelago up to Ellesmere Island, the coasts of Greenland and throughout Iceland. Also, an isolated population has also been discovered living in Mongolia.

Map of distribution of the Arctic fox
Map of distribution of the Arctic fox

Diet

Arctic foxes are able to eat almost any meat available to them, but their prey primarily consists of lemmings and voles. However, they will also eat arctic ground squirrels, hares, seal pups, birds (ptarmigan), eggs, fish, crustaceans and molluscs.

When hunting, the arctic fox can hear prey hiding up to 1.5 meters below the ice and is able to claw through it to get to its prey. They will exploit any source of carrion and its keen nose can detect a carcass from up to 50km away.

Arctic foxes are opportunistic scavengers and packs of them will often follow polar bears hoping to feed off scrapes of their kills. Like most arctic creatures, they show no fear of man and will regularly eat human refuse. Their populations can bloom in the presence of garbage dumps.

Behaviour

Arctic foxes do not maintain complex social groups and prefer to stay in their monogamous pairs. Due to the extreme weather conditions and low food resources of the harsh arctic, the offspring leave their mothers at a young age. Arctic fox pairs will stay together for life or until one of them dies. These creatures communicate with each other by barking.

Reproduction

Arctic foxes are monogamous and usually mate once a year, although in times of abundance may mate a second time. They are often found in small family groups consisting of one male, two females and the years littler. One of the females is quite often a daughter of the mother from the previous year who stays behind to care for the new cubs before moving on.

The mating season is between February and May with the cubs being born between April and July. The average gestation period for this species is 52 days and the average litter size is between 6 and 12. The cub weighs just 57 grams at birth. The young reach independence at 9 months and are sexually mature at 10 months to a year of age.

Arctic fox cub
Arctic fox cub

Adaptations

  1. The arctic fox has small, rounded, furry ears which helps to reduce heat loss and conserve body heat.
  2. The coat of the arctic fox will change colour and become thinner during the summer months. This lets the fox blend in during the summer months and will not allow the fox to overheat in the hotter days.
  3. The arctic fox has a very high breeding rate in spite of its short lifespan. A female can give birth to up to 25 cubs a year.
  4. Like most mammals that live in the same extreme environment, the arctic fox has thickly haired footpads. This helps to reduce heat loss through the feet and acts as snowshoes to stop it sinking into the snow.

Threats

The biggest threat to arctic foxes is climate change. These animals rely on the frozen seas to survive the harsh winters of the arctic tundra. They live on the icy sea and survive by eating seal carcasses left by polar bears. There are fewer predators and food is easier to find on the ice covered sea. The arctic foxes aren’t able to survive the winter because the ice is melting sooner than usual, leaving them without protection and a source of food.

The other threat to them is hunting, mainly for the fur trade and for game. However, the number of arctic foxes killed for their fur has declined due to the illegalisation of the fur trade.

Conservation

IUCN Status: Least Concern

The arctic foxes are currently being protected by two organisations. One is known as the Polar Conservation Organisation (PCO) which aims to protect and conserve all polar animals. It tries to do this by raising public awareness and funding projects that help these creatures.

They are also protected by SEFALO, which is a joint project between Sweden, Finland and Norway (first set up in 2007). It tracks arctic foxes by applying tracking collars to a number of individuals. It hopes to gain more understanding about their population and behavioural patterns. They also supply feeding supplements to help reduce the mortality rate of these creatures.

Fun Facts

Male: Dog, Regnard, Tod
Female: Vixen
Young: Kit, Cub, Pup
Group: Skulk, Leash

-Can run at speeds of up to 30mph.
-Have been known to skid over ice to get somewhere quickly.
-Has the warmest fur of its kind.
-Only member of the dog family able to change the colour of its fur.
-Shed their fur twice a year.

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