Arctic Fox: Life at the Top of the World
Arctic Fox: Life at the Top of the World
Arctic Fox: Life at the Top of the World Arctic Fox: Life at the Top of the World Arctic Fox: Life at the Top of the World Arctic Fox: Life at the Top of the World

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Publisher: Firefly Books

Edition Notes: ebook
Author Statement: by Garry Hamilton with photographs by Norbert Rosing
Audience: Trade
Specs: map, bibliography, photos
Pages: 232
Trim Size: 8 1/2" x 11" x 13/16"
Language code 1: eng
Publication Date: 20111223
Copyright Year: 2011
Price: Select Below

Arctic Fox: Life at the Top of the World

Curious, innovative and mysterious survivors of the arctic tundra.

Ever since explorers began venturing north into the harsh lands of the arctic, they have encountered arctic foxes in the unlikeliest of places. The arctic fox is an extraordinary creature. No bigger than a house cat, it survives on almost nothing in the middle of a land so hostile it seems incompatible with the very existence of life. The tundra is a place of endless days or endless nights where temperatures can reach -58°F (-50°C) for weeks at a time, and where the terrain consists mostly of ice sheets, pack ice, ice floes, icebergs, ice shelves and glaciers.

Arctic Fox tells the story of this animal from its evolutionary beginnings to its difficult life in the far north involving:

  • Mating and raising a family
  • Hunting and scavenging
  • Its relationship with the polar bear and other arctic inhabitants
  • The fur trade
  • Adaptation to seasonal changes
  • The never-ending struggle for survival in a fragile and vanishing environment.

This informative, lively and beautifully photographed book will fascinate naturalists and general readers.


Garry Hamilton is a journalist whose articles have appeared in magazines around the world. He is the author of Frog Rescue and Rhino Rescue, in the acclaimed Firefly Animal Rescue series.

Norbert Rosing travels annually to the Arctic to photograph arctic foxes, polar bears and other inhabitants of the region. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic and has won many awards for his work. He is the author and photographer of The World of the Polar Bear.



Iceland's central desert is not a place where you would want to live. Located on a plateau roughly 1,200 feet (400 m) above sea level, it is a terrain that's been pummeled for thousands of years by the activity of both glaciers and volcanoes. Its plains of lava dust are dotted with scattered pumice boulders and Daliesque sculptures of rock, giving it the look more of a moonscape than of a landscape. In August there's always a chance of a snowstorm, or a dust storm, and this would be tourist season. The rest of the year, owing to the latitude and altitude, it is as raw a place as one could imagine.

In the summer of 1932 a team of English scientists from the University of Cambridge mounted an expedition into a part of Iceland's central desert so remote, so inaccessible and so barren that part of it remained virtually unexplored. They could have come from the north, across more than 100 miles (160 km) of barely passable fields of broken rock. Instead they came from the south, by ski and by pulling sleds, across a 3,127 square mile (8,000 square kilometers) mountain of permanent ice known as Vatnajökull.

Part of their mission was to see how life returns after the physical forces of nature have wiped the slate of the Earth clean. Thus they were drawn to places amidst the lava fields where a hot spring or glacier-fed stream had allowed the faintest sparks of life to struggle forth. There they found and catalogued the hardy pioneers that were establishing themselves, however thinly. There were the beginnings of tundra-like vegetation, with patches of moss, sedges and even dwarf willow. There were various insects -- beetles, spiders and flies. There were several species of birds -- including ducks, swans and sandpipers -- that had been able to find, and survive on, the insects and water plants. And there was feces; feces from the only mammal on Earth capable of surviving this close to life's outer edge -- the arctic fox.

In the accounts of their adventure, the Englishmen made no mention of being surprised at this discovery and there is no reason to think that they had any reason to be. During the previous centuries, Europeans had ventured forth into the far north for the first time since the age of the Vikings. When they returned, they routinely brought back stories of encounters with arctic foxes in the unlikeliest of places. This is an animal -- an animal no bigger than an old house cat -- that can survive on almost nothing, in the middle of nowhere, under conditions that seem incompatible with the existence of life.

Until the 1980s, few scientists had ever studied the arctic fox in any great detail. And apart from a handful of magazine articles, very little has ever been written about the animal. Even in the eyes of popular culture, the arctic fox seems perennially overshadowed by larger, more charismatic celebrities like the polar bear, the walrus and the musk ox. Perhaps it's because so few people ever get to see an arctic fox. Perhaps it's too easy to mistake it for just another fox.

But there is plenty to admire, beginning with sheer beauty. What is it about certain forms and patterns in nature that we humans find so appealing? Is it something we understand just because we observed our parents' pleasant smiles as they felt the soft curve of a rose petal or stared at a blinding streak of snow on a craggy peak set against a deep blue sky? Or is there something about certain things that transcends our culturally generated inclinations? Surely the arctic fox stands as an argument for the latter. Look at it curled up in its cloudlike pillow of snow-white fur, an icon for beauty if there ever was one. Perhaps there is something deep within us that recognizes this material for what it is, one of nature's greatest feats of engineering. It is believed that no other animal coat can match the insulating properties of arctic fox fur. On a living animal (as opposed to the shoulders of a socialite) it is like a meringue -- seemingly nine parts air; one part solid, or at least as close as a solid can come to mimicking the lightness of air. In observing the arctic fox curled inside this blanket of its own making, do we secretly imagine ourselves tucked away in this very definition of comfort? Whatever the reason, there is no denying that few of us can look at a picture of this animal and not be touched -- touched by the desire to reach out and run our fingers through this downy carpet; touched by the magnificence of nature. We look at the arctic fox and we are pleased.

But beauty is only one aspect of this remarkable animal's appeal. Equally appealing, for very different reasons, is the arctic fox's ability to survive in what to most humans is an unfathomably strange place. This is the arctic tundra. It's a place where for part of the year there are no sunrises or sunsets or even high noons, just a mad dog sun that during midsummer circles around and around in a broad, halo-like orbit that gradually angles toward the southern sky before finally falling off the horizon entirely, not to be seen again for months. During this time, there is nothing but night.

It's a place where not a single day of the year is without a chance of snow, where the temperatures can reach -58 degrees Fahrenheit (-50 degrees Celsius) for days and even weeks at a time, where storms whip winds filled with icy shards with the ferocity of a sandblaster, and where the weather report often more closely matches a location on Mars than most others on Earth.

It's a place where the state of the nation is mostly described in terms of ice -- ice sheets, pack ice, ice floes, icebergs, ice shelves, landfast ice, frazil ice, grease ice, glaciers. It's a place where compasses don't work; where optical illusions caused by the sun and light and ice give the impression of mountains rising up from the horizon where no mountains exist.

It's a place where trees refuse to grow and where, on the rare occasions when they do, they grow sideways -- strewn across the rocks like old ship cables. Even the bacteria here seem to have adopted a four-day week, apparently uncommitted to the job of decay. As for the geology, this is a land of gobbledygook -- of strangmoors, felsenmeer, flarks, aufeis and pingos: a world where the surface of the land oozes and flows and expands and contracts like some alien monster sponge. The arctic ground isn't soft and crumbly like the soil most humans take for granted, but a frozen tomb preserving ancient vegetation and the bodies of giant beasts that haven't walked the Earth for millennia.

It's a land where no sound is what it seems. That cannon fire? It's two male musk oxen butting heads. That exploding building? It's a sheet of ice, as thick as a one-story building and as big as 10 football fields, folding into pieces by the force of ocean currents. Or maybe it's a 10-million-ton iceberg, top-heavy from decades of current wear, succumbing to gravity with a single, dramatic 180-degree backflip.

The challenges facing life in the Arctic are extreme. First, there's the low temperature. Colder places exist, notably in Antarctica and farther into the Siberian interior. But the difference between severe and most severe hardly matters. When an Inuit ice fisherman hauls an arctic char out of a lake, the fish freezes solid within minutes. Living human flesh is no match for the arctic winter. "Certain parts of me -- cheeks and chin, particularly -- had begun to burn as if seared with a hot iron," wrote the French amateur anthropologist Gontran de Poncins after spending a winter in the Canadian Arctic, "and where the burning took place I felt the flesh suddenly harden. I was shriveling up. I tried to lower my head, to turn sideways away from the wind, to roll up in a tense and miserable ball. I was ready to give up, and for a word I should have broken into sobs. My soul was shaken. Nature here was too strong, there was no resisting her."

The absence of sunlight is equally brutal. With limited solar energy there is little biological productivity, which in lay terms means there is very little to eat. Vast stretches of the Arctic are for the most part barren. The food resources that do exist are often temporary, or unpredictable, or both. Lemmings, the only rodent found in the high Arctic, can be swarming over the tundra one year, nowhere to be seen the next. A marshy lake, surrounded by a sea of nesting geese for a month in the summer, can be a silent wasteland the rest of the year. Animal carcasses -- important for scavengers like the arctic fox -- can be rare or abundant depending on circumstance. An ill-timed freeze can lock the tundra's low-lying vegetation beneath a sheet of frozen snow and ice, leaving caribou, musk oxen and other browsers to starve in droves. The Arctic, paradoxically, is known for its great profusions of life. But this image is deceptive. Much of this life lives in the sea, where conditions are not as extreme as they are on the open tundra. The deep water of the ocean, after all, can never get colder than a degree or two below freezing, and this difference in thermal energy makes an enormous difference in the profusion of life.

Many of the species that do live on the tundra are cheaters. They haven't evolved ways of enduring the cold and the darkness and the absence of food so much as they've acquired ways of avoiding these conditions. Most of the arctic birds fall into this category. These are fair-weather tourists who pour north as the summer party of wildflowers and 24-hour sunlight swings into full tilt, then flee south again before the first serious September snowflakes hit the ground. Small animals such as lemmings and voles, meanwhile, survive by spending the entire winter in a relatively warm network of tunnels beneath the snow.

The ranges of other species -- grizzlies, arctic ground squirrels and wolverines, for example -- encroach on what scientists call the low Arctic, the tundra zone abutting the northern boreal forests. Generally the farther north one goes, however, the less energy is available and therefore the less biodiversity the land is able to support and the harder it is for life to survive. There are officially 17 different mammals living in the Canadian Arctic. In the high Arctic, one can find here and there only a hardy few -- the prehistoric-looking musk oxen, arctic hares, caribou, arctic wolves and polar bears, along with fewer than a dozen species of birds.

The arctic fox, by comparison, is as close to ubiquitous as an arctic species can get. Its range is often described as circumpolar; that is, everywhere north of the Arctic Circle. This includes the tundra zone that extends across the continental mainland of North America: from the north slope of Alaska, along the coast of the northern Canadian mainland from the Yukon to the shores of Hudson Bay, and across northern Quebec and Labrador. In Europe and Asia it includes the alpine tundra found atop the mountains of Norway, Sweden and Finland, as well as northern Russia and all 11 of its time zones.

But that's just the start. Arctic foxes can also be found on almost every island in the Arctic Ocean, no matter how remote. This includes the islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago; Iceland; the coastal fringes of Greenland; and Svalbard, a group of jagged islands halfway between the northern crown of Scandinavia and the North Pole and so far off the beaten track that Norway recently selected it as the site for its "doomsday vault" -- an underground cave designed to protect seeds from 10,000 of the world's crop plants against nuclear annihilation or other global disasters.

Arctic foxes are also among the few animals that can be found on Franz Joseph Land, a group of volcanic islands 800 miles (1290 km) north of western Russia that are covered by permanent ice except for a few scattered outcroppings of moss- and lichen-covered rocks. They're on Novaya Zemlya, an extension of the Ural Mountains that served as a major nuclear bomb test site for the Soviet Union during the Cold War. They're found on Severnaya Zemlya, a small group of islands in the ice-choked waters north of central Siberia that remained uncharted until 1933, the last of the world's major archipelagoes to be mapped. Then there are the New Siberian Islands, exposed portions of continental shelf -- mounds of sand and gravel, really -- that protrude from the Arctic Ocean off the northeast coast of Siberia. If you can find your way to the New Siberian Islands, you will encounter arctic foxes.

In addition to these and other scattered patches of godforsaken terra firma, the flag of the arctic fox also flies over the Arctic's other "island" -- the polar ice cap. This floating slab of permanently frozen ice is, during its September minimum, roughly the size of the continental United States. By March, it has swallowed half of Greenland and many of the Arctic islands including almost the entire Canadian Arctic Archipelago. It is a vast expanse of nothing but snow and ice. Yet on more than a few occasions explorers, adventurers, tourists and scientists traveling on the ice pack have come across arctic foxes or arctic fox tracks, sometimes hundreds of miles from the nearest land and occasionally even within a few miles of the North Pole itself.

One might expect such an existence to be a struggle, an endless tightrope walk over the chasm of death. And in one sense, it is. The vast majority of newborn foxes are thought not to make it through their first winter. The average lifespan of an arctic fox in the wild is thought to be three to four years.

And yet the animal is clearly a survivor. Thought to have evolved somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 years ago, it has survived several periods of glaciation. It has survived the brutal environment -- the lack of food, the absence of warmth, the Arctic's infamous cycles of boom and bust that occur over both time and space. And it has survived the migration into the Arctic of Homo sapiens -- including the last century, during which arctic fox pelts became de rigueur first among Europe's socialites and then among its prostitutes. The total number of arctic foxes has been estimated to be somewhere between 300,000 and one million, but this number is largely irrelevant. Because the animals are so spread out, and because they reproduce and die in such dramatic waves, drawing up an estimate of their numbers is something no one has ever seriously tried to do. The point is: against seemingly incredible odds, they flourish.

How do they do it? For one thing, they possess a body that's nearly unparalleled among mammals in its abilities to deal with the cold. From the composition of its fur to the shape of its ears to the way it stores and utilizes fat, the arctic fox is a walking bundle of energy-conserving adaptations -- a finely tuned biological machine that manages to pull off the seemingly impossible feat of maintaining a high body temperature in the extreme cold despite a scarcity of fuel.

Just as importantly, arctic foxes have evolved many behaviors and traits that enable them to overcome the variable and unpredictable nature of the arctic environment. They are intelligent and adaptable. They can scavenge or hunt or forage, depending on circumstance. They are expert food hoarders when confronted with a windfall. And they're both brazen and curious beyond words. An arctic fox will defend what it has against a marauding wolf or wolverine, and it will show no qualms over exploring the deck of an icebound ship, or sticking its nose into someone's tent. The name given to the arctic fox by the Sami of northern Scandinavia is svale -- the bold one.

They're also extremely flexible. Arctic foxes will eat whatever is available: from rodents to crustaceans; from the rotting insides of a bowhead whale to bits of clothing left unguarded by a distracted scientist. In the winter, some will venture far out onto the sea ice in search of seal carcasses that have been abandoned by polar bears. Others will follow wolves in search of caribou scraps. In satisfying their need for shelter, they are perfectly happy with whatever they can find, be it a hole in the ground, an old oil drum or the body cavity of a rotting walrus. Their territorial instincts are even more arbitrary. Arctic foxes have been known to stay put on the same patch of tundra their entire lives, or -- for reasons still not well understood -- they will set off on epic journeys in which they walk across ice or snow-covered tundra for hundreds and even thousands of miles. They can also display plasticity in their family structures, sometimes forming monogamous pairs, sometimes living together as members of small communities. Even arctic fox reproduction is tuned to the mood swings of the land. When times are tough, they may not reproduce at all. When there's a windfall of food, they will produce litters that are among the largest of all mammals.

Viewed from almost any angle, the arctic fox is an extraordinary animal. In reading the accounts of early Arctic explorers, one can't help but see how a small, furry creature was able to win over the hearts of hardened men who were out to conquer nature. There these adventurers were, tormented by marauding polar bears, weakened by hunger, under stress from being locked in the grip of the ice that they knew might not ever let them go, and then out of the madness emerges ... this glorious, playful creature. How strange! The explorers sometimes remarked on the way the animals seemed to appear out of nowhere and vanish just as mysteriously, like ghosts in the fog-enshrouded tundra. But they were usually friendly, comforting ghosts -- diminutive playthings that stood as a dose of familiarity in an unfamiliar land, and as a bridge between what the explorers were enduring and what they had left behind. Often they took them aboard and made them into pets. Sometimes they even took them home.

Today the arctic fox plays a similar role in our quest to understand the mysteries of nature: a bridge to understanding how organisms that in the grand scheme of things are not that different from us -- the same instincts to explore, to hoard, to play, to consume beyond need, the same mammalian biology -- can survive so successfully in a land so hostile. The threat of global warming has also thrust species like the arctic fox into a new and important limelight, both as lessons on how life is shaped by climate and as an early warning signal for what happens to life when climate undergoes large-scale change.

Thus in its improbable existence, the arctic fox has some worthy stories to tell -- stories about nature, stories about us -- that are both illuminating and enchanting. In that sense, these animals are not unlike those magical ghostly rays that astonish visitors to the north -- true northern lights of the mind's eye.


Table of Contents


Chapter 1 Rise of the Catlike Dogs
Chapter 2 Into the Cold
Chapter 3 Alopex lagopus -- The Arctic Fox

Chapter 4 Life at 40 Below
Chapter 5 On the Barrens
Chapter 6 Tyranny of the Lemmings
Chapter 7 In the Shadow of Ursus maritimus
Chapter 8 When the Geese Come
Chapter 9 The Problem With Permafrost
Chapter 10 How to Raise a Family in 90 Days Or Less
Chapter 11 Born To Roam
Chapter 12 Grizzly Bears and Other Nuisances

Chapter 13 The Hunter Becomes the Hunted
Chapter 14 Object of Desire
Chapter 15 One Thousand Years of Loathing
Chapter 16 A Cautionary Tale


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