Lawrence and Nunivak islands but on the Pribilof and Aleutian islands, where arctic foxes have been introduced, the blue colored type favored by fox farmers predominates. Both color phases may occur in the same litter.
The arctic fox is about the size of a large cat, between 30 to 45 inches in length, weighing 6 to 10 pounds and standing about 9 to 12 inches at the shoulder. Over the winter the arctic fox has a heavy white coat, but when early summer temperatures begin to melt the snow cover, the coat is shed for a thinner, two-tone brown pelage. White fur not only provides camouflage in winter but adds warmth.
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A pigment called melanin, absent in white fur, gives the fox its brown summer coat. Snowshoe hares, polar bears, ermine and ptarmigan all similarly benefit from their winter white coats. The small proportion of this fax species which is the blue color phase in winter sheds its coat in spring to a thinner and darker bluish-gray in summer.
The wide distribution of this fox in such a severe arctic environment is testament to its superb adaptation to cold and to the wide variety of food it will eat. The compact body form, short snout and short, rounded, well-furred ears minimize heat loss from body extremities. The deep, thick pelage of very fine hair, and the hair on the soles of their feet provide excellent insulation.
Even in winter, arctic foxes seldom seek shelter during their incessant search for food, except during severe storms when they may dig a hole in a snow bank or search out a breeding den. The diet of the arctic fox is extremely varied throughout its range, related as it is to regional geographic characteristics and seasonal fluctuations in food supply.
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Microtine rodents, such as lemmings, ground squirrels and voles are an important component of the diet. Foxes inhabiting marine regions also hunt for small marine animals, fish and carrion along shorelines. In winter, coastal arctic foxes venture onto the sea ice where they frequently trail polar bears to feed on the remains of seal kills.
About two months before the end of winter, arctic foxes begin to pair up and mate. They found that the ancient Arctic foxes shared a single genetic signature while the modern population possesses five unique signatures.
The scientists reasoned that the explosion in genetic diversity was due to Arctic foxes migrating across the sea ice during the Little Ice Age. Even today, Arctic foxes routinely travel hundreds of kilometres across sea ice. The Arctic fox has adapted well to living in the cold, extreme climate of the Arctic. Because they have short legs and a round body they have a small body area, enabling them to stay warm. Their winter coat has one the highest insulating capacities of any other mammal. During the winter months even their paws are covered in fur. These adaptations mean the Arctic fox can survive even in temperatures of minus 40 degrees Celsius without increasing their metabolism rate.
In fact, they have been known to withstand temperatures of even minus 70 degrees Celsius! Another way the Arctic fox survives in brutally cold temperatures is having veins in its legs very close together. This means the warm blood that flows into the leg heats up the colder blood returning. The result is the legs having a lower temperature than the rest of the body, reducing heat loss.
To survive through the winter with minimal supplies of food, the Arctic fox stores body fat. During the summer and autumn months the Arctic fox eats as much as it can with the food building up an insulating layer of fat and fat reserves that it uses up during the winter months. Additionally, the Arctic fox will store food, burying it ready for use in the winter.
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However, these hidden supplies cannot be relied on as the winter storms can be severe and be covered in thick snow. When the winter storms are at their worst, Arctic foxes will hide in a sheltered place and let themselves be covered by the snow or they dig into snow drifts. These adaptations mean a healthy Arctic fox can in fact function without food for several weeks.
The Arctic foxes that live in the coastal areas of Iceland, Svalbard and Western Greenland have a diet of sea birds, seal carcasses and fish. In contrast, the inland Arctic foxes that live in the tundra and alpine regions of Scandinavia, North America and in the north-east of Greenland feast on rodents, including lemmings and so they have variable years of food supply. Every years there is a peak in rodent populations resulting in many pups being born.
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During the lean years, Arctic foxes may have only a few pups or even none. Because of the variability in food supply between coastal and inland regions, it means there is a difference in territorial size. To survive and reproduce, Arctic foxes live in pairs with the male and female helping each other defend their home range and raise their pups.
Researchers believe they live in pairs as raising pups is very energy-intensive and so improves their chances of survival. Sometimes females from previous litters may even stay at home with the pair to help feed and care for the next lot of pups. Dens are usually dug in a sand or gravel bank in the lower areas of mountains and have multiple entrances: it can even be up to 10, while the largest dens have hundreds of entrances and have been used for centuries.
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Arctic females usually breed in their first year but that depends on whether there is abundancy of food. The size of litters is also dependent on availability of food with litters of common for inland Arctic foxes who have abundant supplies of rodents.
The average nonetheless is around 6 pups per litter. When an Arctic fox is born its blind and has thin fur. For the first three to four weeks the pups stay inside the den and learn how to walk and play. After weeks they become adventurous and will start exploring the world alone. By the time autumn arrives the pups have left to find their own home range as well as a partner and den.
To learn more about Arctic foxes, the Swedish Arctic fox project is studying the demography and genetics of the Arctic fox as part of a wider conservation and monitoring programme that includes the Norwegian Environment Agency and WWF. As part of the study, the researchers visit Arctic fox dens in the Swedish mountain ranges and tundra and see if they are inhabited.
At the same time the researchers do extensive surveys of small rodents and birds. Arctic foxes are also tagged on their ear, enabling tagged foxes to be recognised within several hundred metres with a spotting scope. Take a cruise around Spitsbergen and explore the icy waters of the North Atlantic. This special expedition offers you the chance to catch site of whales, reindeer, Arctic foxes, walruses, seals, and the star attraction, the polar bear.
Sail around Spitsbergen taking in the wildlife, whaling history, and stunning landscapes. Visit historic whaling stations and search for walruses and reindeer. Head to Hornsund to explore the glaciers and the hunting grounds of the Polar Bear. The North Spitsbergen cruise sails to some of the remotest locations of northern Europe. The expedition gives you the opportunity to spot historic whaling remains, glaciers, a variety of Arctic birds including the Little Auk, and polar bears.