Arctic Fox Adaptations | Habitat and Behavior


arctic-foxes-adaptations

Arctic fox adaptations have allowed these foxes to survive through the hardest of tribulations. They have an ancient history and an incredible story of survival.

The arctic fox is a species of fox that lives in the most northern regions of the world. They survive in the tundra and thrive in cold climates through biological adaptations and scavenger-like behavior that keeps them alive and well.

Arctic Fox Adaptations Video

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Arctic Foxes in Winter video

The arctic fox’s scientific name is (Vulpes Lagopus.)

Classifications
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Canidae
Genus: Vulpes

Other names for the arctic fox:

  • Snow fox
  • Polar fox
  • White fox

The scientific name “Vulpes Lagopus” is Latin meaning: Hare-footed fox. This is because the arctic fox has fur on the bottom of its feet that helps keep its footpads from getting frostbite.

The arctic fox is one of the 12 true type fox species (Vulpes.)

These foxes exist in the northern hemisphere (Arctic tundra) despite the extreme cold temperatures.

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Where Does the Arctic Fox Live

The arctic fox lives in the northern regions of Asia, Europe, North America, Iceland, and Greenland. There are some territories where they have been hunted into extinction.

They live in areas where the temperatures get far below freezing. Arctic foxes can be found in northern Russia, Canada, and even Alaska.

They are the only mammal that is native to Iceland.

The arctic fox is so old that it walked over the frozen land bridge to North American territories from Europe during the last ice age.

Some migration occurs with them, traveling from their home range and back.

During this time they will make multiple 3-day trips where they will move out of their home range into new territory and then back to their home range.

In Alaska, they will migrate during the fall breeding months, then back to their home range in the winter.

Sometimes they migrate in numbers, and other times they are nomadic and will do it on their own.

The reason can be because their food sources migrate, or for breeding purposes.

Either way, they have managed to occupy the coldest territories and survive despite many obstacles.

Let’s take a look at how they have managed to adapt to such harsh environments.

Arctic Fox Adaptations

The arctic fox is a beautiful fox that has multiple color morphs, known mostly for its white fur during the winter months. They exist amongst other animals such as polar bears, reindeer, and seals.

Arctic fox adaptations are part of their evolution to exist in the Arctic tundra. These foxes can withstand cold temperatures as low as -58 degrees Fahrenheit (-50 degrees celsius.)

The northernmost parts of the world look like a winter wonderland. However, things are not as wonderful as they seem in Christmas specials about the north pole.

Arctic foxes have lived in these extremely cold conditions for a very long time and somehow they continue to adapt and survive.

So how have they managed to survive for so long in such conditions?

Here is a list of arctic fox adaptations:

  • Thick fur/pelage
  • Fur covered footpads
  • Short legs and ears
  • Unique hunting methods
  • Color changing camouflage
  • Thick tail for covering up
  • Scavenger behavior

These are just a few adaptations that have allowed these foxes to keep their homes in the northern hemispheres.

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Arctic Fox Fur

Their greatest asset is their thick fur and pelage. They are much thicker than foxes that live in southern climates. This helps insulate them from the icy weather.

This has also made them a target for fur trappers who sell their pelts, and for indigenous people who use their pelts as clothing to survive.

Fur Covered Footpads

Another arctic fox adaptation is the fur on the bottom of their footpads. They are the only Canid that has fur on their pads that help keep them from freezing. Without that added insulation they could get frostbite.

In the wild, you have to be quick on your feet so having extra insulation to keep their feet healthy is important to their survival.

Short Legs and Ears

Arctic foxes are more compact than some other fox species. They have short legs and shorter ears. This helps them contain their body heat, having less exposure to the icy weather.

This also makes it easier to identify them between red foxes who may have a white color morph.

Unique Hunting Methods

Foxes in colder snow-covered climates have adapted to unique methods for hunting. They count on their hearing to listen for prey, that burrow in the snow where they cannot be seen.

However, scientists have recently discovered that they use a unique method of triangulation between the magnetic fields which allow them to locate and pounce down deep into the snow to recover their prey. Source.

Color Changing Camouflage

Most arctic foxes are the white color morph, however, some have a blue color morph, and in the summer months, they may have a brown or charcoal morph.

The white fur allows them to blend in with their snowy surroundings, keeping them from being seen by predators.

In the summer sometimes their fur will change to a brown color, this matches the dirt and ground when the snow melts and the temperatures get warmer.

Thick Tail for Covering

Arctic foxes have a thick tail that is slightly larger than other fox species. They will wrap their tails around their body to help insulate and keep warm. This is extremely important when they need to burrow in and keep their core body temperature warm.

This is one of the finest arctic fox adaptations because their bodies change with the conditions.

Scavenger Behavior

They have been known to exhibit scavenger-like behavior. This allows them to feast on carrion leftover by other animals who make kills. Food can be scarce in the Arctic and these foxes have learned to take advantage of every opportunity to find food.

Polar bears will oftentimes only eat the blubber or fat parts of their kills, leaving behind the meat.

This is a prime example of arctic fox adaptations where they have learned to survive on what others leave behind.

They have also learned to scavenge for vegetation. In the winter vegetation is scarce and they must go to extreme measures to make sure that they can find food sources.

In both the winter months and summer months they learn to find areas that have vegetation, and remember where they are each year.  

what-do-arctic-foxes-eat

What Do Arctic foxes eat?

Because the arctic fox must be a scavenger to find food sources this means they eat pretty much anything they can.

In most areas where they live, lemmings are their main food source. However, what they eat can be quite diverse.

List of what arctic foxes eat:

  • Lemmings
  • Voles
  • Eggs
  • Rodents
  • Hares
  • Fish
  • Carrion
  • Feces
  • Birds

What they eat can depend largely on the territory where they live. In the tundra, they rely mostly on lemmings and rodents.

arctic-foxes-diet-lemming
Arctic foxes eat lemmings.

However, in Canada there are a lot of birds, and bird migration, so they eat birds, eggs, hares, and more.

In areas where the lemming is their main food source, the populations of lemmings has been shown to have an affect on the arctic fox population, and how many kits they have.

artic-fox-lemmings-stats
Source.

Foxes that live closer to the coastal areas rely primarily on birds.

A family of arctic foxes can eat many lemmings per day. When food sources are available they eat as much as they can to put on as much fat as they can for insulation.

They have also been known to eat ringed seal pups. If they also occupy their home range and habitat then a young seal becomes part of their diet.

Foxes are surplus killers and when they have an abundant food supply they will bury and store food for later.

Bird eggs can be buried for a year and still be eaten. These types of food caches help them put on weight for the winter.

arctic-foxes-diet-arctic-hare
Arctic hares are a food source.

Food in the Winter

Much of what they eat is seasonal. In the winter they will oftentimes rely on their food caches. They also eat more seal pups, carrion, and lemmings in those months.

Voles and other rodents are also a food source in the winter for them.

The winters can be harsh and many arctic foxes do not survive more than one year in the Tundra.

On the sea ice, much of their diet consists of marine life.

Food in the Summer

In the summer months, depending on whether or not they can migrate, they have access to a wider range of food.

They can kill hares, more rodents, and will even find berries and seaweed.

Arctic foxes, like other species of foxes, are omnivores.

Their opportunistic eating habits help them to survive through the seasons.

Arctic Fox Habitat

The habitats of arctic foxes can vary depending on where they live. There are many differences in foxes that live in the arctic circle, oppose to those who live in lower parts of Canada.

Since the arctic fox is widely dispersed in the northern hemisphere their habitats can sometimes be opportunistic.

Taking on dens from other animals, or inheriting dens from previous fox families.

They mostly inhabit the treeless parts of the Tundra. However, they have also made it to forests in Canada.

When the arctic fox migrates it must take shelter in abandoned dens and burrows.

Arctic foxes have also made it to some coastal island territories that have large goose populations.

These foxes are less likely to migrate because of the large source of geese and eggs that they can bury for their cache.

During the ice age, foxes were more widely dispersed and fox fossils have shown that they have been found to live in Siberia and other parts of northern Europe.

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Arctic Fox Dens

The Arctic ecosystem is always changing and this can make their habitats change as well.

Due to changes in climate, sea ice is always moving arctic foxes to different territories where there are food sources.

They are very adaptive when it comes to moving to where the food is.

Most of their dens are in snowbanks. They are burrowed into the banks and have one to two entrances, although sometimes they will have many more.

In the summer they will burrow in edges of the forests of the tundra. Usually, they will make their dens in hillsides.

Male foxes will move around to different dens and do not hibernate.

Female foxes can have two litters per year so they tend to dig in and stay to one or two dens and keep a smaller home range.

Do Arctic Foxes Live in Packs?

Foxes do not generally live in packs but they can have large family units. Since the females can have two litters per year it is not unusual for arctic foxes to keep larger family units.

While it may be harder to feed their young in the beginning. Once they can hunt on their own, the young ones can contribute to the cache of food and chances of survival.

do-arctic-foxes-live-in-packs

Arctic Foxes Distribution

Since these foxes are nomadic they tend to move from area to area depending on climate change and changes in food sources.

From northern Europe to North America, they are always on the move.

Their wide distribution can be attributed to their adaptation skills. Fossils show that they have lived in almost every northern part of the hemisphere at one time or another.

Arctic Foxes Behavioral Adaptations

The most unique thing about these animals is their ability to adapt to their surroundings and unforeseen circumstances.

Can you imagine being dependent on food sources that are always migrating and moving inland due to climate change?

The arctic fox’s behavior has been modified over the years due to these changes in the arctic environment.

This is another reason they must be opportunistic and exhibit the scavenger behavior that they are known for.

They have been studied by scientists and even tracked using GPS tags. In experiments, they have found that some of these foxes will travel up to 30 miles per day when migrating.

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Arctic fox adaptations in winter.

Arctic Foxes Appearance

The arctic fox has more than one color morph. There are two main morphs, one is white, and the other is blue.

The white color morph helps them blend into the snow and works as camouflage. This can help them avoid predators and hunters.

There is a higher percentage of white color morphs than there are blue.

The blue color morph can look like a blue-gray or charcoal color. This helps them to blend into the rocks and landscape.

They change color with the seasons.

arctic-foxes-shedding-winter-coat

The white morphs and blue morphs will both turn colors during the summer months. Having more of a brown or charcoal appearance.

These arctic fox adaptations such as color-changing, are vital to their survival.

They weigh around 6 -17 pounds and have a little bit smaller stature than the red fox species of foxes.

Their faces are also more round than a red fox. You can usually tell the difference between a white morph red fox and an arctic fox by the shape of their face.

They have more rounded compact bodies and short legs.

As well as short ears and smaller muzzles.

This helps them in the cold since they have less body size to be exposed to the elements.

arctic-foxes-color-morphs
Blue morph arctic fox.

Arctic Fox Babies

These foxes mate for life. The females can have 1-2 litters per year and have up to 14 kits per litter!

They have the largest litters of any of the other canid families.

Baby arctic foxes are called “kits.”

arctic-foxes-babies

The breeding season is from February to June, though sometimes it starts a little earlier or goes a little later.

The gestation period for arctic foxes is around 49-57 days.

The mother fox takes refuge in very deep dens that are sometimes generations old. These burrows are more than just your average burrows and are made in areas that have no frost.

This is another testament to the arctic fox’s ability to adapt.

Fox kits are beautiful creatures who learn at a very young age to survive.

arctic-foxes-kits

Unfortunately, the lifespan of foxes in the wild is not very long. This is even more true with arctic fox babies.

Foxes make excellent parents. They try hard to teach their young to make it in a world that has the odds stacked against them.

How Long Do Arctic Foxes Live?

Arctic foxes have less of a chance at survival than some of the other fox species. They have more obstacles, more threats, and a tougher environment.

That is why arctic fox adaptation is so important.

Most foxes do not live past 2 years old, however, the arctic fox rarely lives past 1 year old.

If they do live past that first year, they may then, have obtained the ability to survive.

That is the brutal struggle that nature throws at them. The ice, the extreme cold, the predators, and hunters.

Arctic foxes live to be 2-6 years old. Once they have survived the first year, they learn to adapt.

how-long-do-arctic-foxes-live

In captivity, an arctic fox may live a much longer life, around 13 years.

Not only do they have to worry about nature, predators, and accidents, they are also hunted and trapped for their fur.

Fox fur is sought after because it has a thick warm pelt. It is used by many native people for their survival, however, it is also bought and sold in world markets, for things like fashion.

Accidents happen in all walks of life. A fox can fall and get injured. They can get swept up water and drown. Many accidents can happen in the wild.

An arctic fox that lives to be 6 years old in the wild, is a wise, old fox.

Are Arctic Foxes Endangered?

While they have been hunted and trapped extensively, the arctic fox is not considered endangered everywhere. The conservation status from the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) considers them of least concern worldwide.

However, climate change has resulted in a reduction in their numbers.

This has also caused them to migrate to areas that they did not normally occupy. Once again the adaptations of the arctic fox make them survivors.

The Arctic has suffered from reducing sea ice, and other problems due to warming temperatures. Changes in habitat and food sources are the biggest concerns for the arctic fox.

are-arctic-foxes-endangered

Red foxes are moving in on their northern territories where the climate has become warmer, causing these two species to clash.

The red fox is larger and more dominant. Although the arctic fox has adapted well to the cold, the red fox is right at home in the semi-cold climates that are now overlapping.

This means the arctic fox must fight much harder to survive.

While they are not considered endangered worldwide they do have endangered status in at least two countries.

Luckily in places where their numbers have been reduced to populations of merely 200, such as in Norway, and Sweden, hunting bans have been put into place.

Sweden and Norway have teamed up in recent years to stop fur trappers and hunters from completely wiping them out.

How Many Arctic Foxes Are Left?

The exact number of any species is hard to track. However, it is estimated that there are thousands of arctic fox populations worldwide.

There are also many of their populations that have not been tracked.

Such as the pet trade industry, where they are bred as pets. Fur farms do still exist and have also bred them. However, few of them make it out of the fur farms alive.

Sanctuaries also keep them, usually taking in wounded ones or ones that did not meet fur farm standards.

arctic-foxes-population
Arctic fox adaptations.

Arctic Foxes Predators

What preys on the arctic fox? Foxes have many predators and natural enemies. Many of the usual suspects share their territories in the arctic.

Predators of the arctic fox:

  • Polar bears
  • Wolverines
  • Golden eagles
  • Red foxes
  • Wolves
  • Other bear species

These natural enemies are a threat to arctic foxes. The color of their fur helps camouflage them, however, many of their predators have a sense of smell and other senses that help track them for predation.

Even red foxes will kill, and on occasion, eat an arctic fox. Wolves, another canid, hunts them as well.

do-polar-bears-eat-arctic-foxes
Polar bears eat arctic foxes.

Arctic Foxes as Pets

The pet fox trade industry has boomed in recent years. After domestication programs in Siberia proved to be successful, many breeders have surfaced.

There are many different color mutations within foxes, and some hybrid breeds are created by crossing an arctic fox with a red fox.

See our article on fox mutations and breeding here.

Like other fox species, arctic foxes as pets can be hard to handle. They cannot be litter trained, and for the most part, are difficult to deal with.

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For this reason, is it best that they have outdoor enclosures with enough space to move around.

Foxes have a lot of love, and while rescuing a fox from fur farms, and other situations where they have had injuries, is admirable and necessary, it would not be wise to attempt to tame a wild arctic fox.

They can live in sanctuaries, and as pets in certain situations, for the mere reason that they cannot survive in the wild.

See more about fox habitats.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can an arctic fox swim?

Yes, they can swim. Many arctic foxes live on sea ice and must swim to different locations. Their physiology allows them to endure extreme temperatures.

Do arctic foxes live in southern countries?

The arctic fox is only native to the northern hemisphere and within the arctic circle and tundra. While climate change has caused them to move further south, they are not native to the United States, or South American countries.

Why do arctic foxes have different body shapes than red foxes?

This is another part of how they have adapted. Their body accommodates the climate where they live. Having short ears and legs helps them stay warm.

How fast can an arctic fox run?

Even with their shorter legs, the arctic fox can move pretty fast. It is estimated that they can run up to 30 miles per hour.

Chad Fox

Chad Fox is an author and researcher dedicated to bringing reliable information about foxes to the public. He supports animal sanctuary awareness.

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