SPECIES: Alopex lagopus
GENERAL DESCRIPTION: As implied by its name, the arctic fox (also known as the terrienniak)* is a cold-weather animal. Compared to other canines, such as wolves and dogs, it is quite small. Fully grown arctic foxes usually range from around six to ten pounds (although specimens up to fifteen pounds are not especially rare), and are on average about 40-45 inches long (including tail). On average, they're about ten to twelve inches high at the shoulder. They have very short legs, and this combined with a thick winter coat enables them to resist the sub-zero temperatures of their habitats.
MOLTING AND COLOR: Arctic foxes molt twice a year. The first molting occurs in early April, when they begin to shed their thick white fur in favor of a thinner (and in some places darker) coat. By June, the upper parts of the body, legs, and face are covered in short brown summer fur. The lower sides still maintain a lighter color, and are usually yellowish white. Around late September, they begin to molt again, this time shedding their short fur and growing long white coats. This process is usually finished by around November. It is worth noting that there are two definite color phases with the arctic fox-- white and blue. A white color phase fox's coat and molting has been described above. A blue color phase fox retains a dark coat year-round (obviously a disadvantage in arctic regions), but the coat does lighten to a plae bluey-gray color in winter, which is actually an advantage in marine regions.
HABITAT AND RANGE: The cold areas that arctic foxes make their homes in will sometimes overlap with those of the red fox's, most notably in the northern sections of Russia and in the middle section (in terms of latitude) of Canada. Almost any part of Alaska makes a suitable habitat for an arctic fox, and the central and northern areas of Canada have similarly agreeable climates. However, they do go farther north than these areas-- arctic foxes can be found literally anywhere in Greenland as well as in most of Iceland. The northernmost parts of Asia and Europe also contain significant portions of arctic foxes. Generally, anywhere within the lower parts of the arctic circle will make a good place for an arctic fox to live. Their particular habitats differ from season to season. In the summer, arctic foxes prefer to live in tundra at the edge of forests, where their darker coats provide fair camouflage due to evergreens and smaller plants. They usually make their dens in hillsides and riverbanks. In winter, however, they're usually found out on ice floes, where their white coats provide excellent camouflage. Hills not being especially plentiful out there, they usually make their winter dens inside snowbanks.
FAMILY AND REPRODUCTION: Arctic foxes are pretty much nomadic during the winter, wandering the terrain looking for anything they can eat. They rarely congregate save at large animal carcasses (which are effectively diners, I suppose). During the summer, they usually form family groups consisting of a male, one or two females, and the kits. If there are two females, the second is a leftover kit from the previous year and helps care for the new kits. Reproduction itself occurs when the male and female foxes 'decide' to form a family group-- this only happens once for most of them, mind you, because arctic foxes are monogamous. To summarize courtship, the courtship period involves a lot of noise and a considerable amount of running around. Play-fighting, chasing each other, et cetera. They will mate soon afterwards. The pregnancy period is about seven or eight weeks Kits are dark-furred when they are born, and their coat begins to change after about a month. Blue color phase kits acquire their distinctive coat at around two months, although the change is more gradual for a white color phase kit. Kits are usually weaned at around three weeks, and after three months they begin hunting and foraging in areas farther away from the den. The father stays with his mate with some of the young foxes during the winter-- no mating occurs until at least February. When the kits can mate for themselves, they usually leave.
DIET: Arctic foxes generally eat whatever they can find. They can digest a wide variety of foods, and are almost as undiscriminating as domestic dogs. Ground squirrels, lemmings, voles, birds, insects, eggs, berries and even carrion are all quite fine with the arctic fox, and they have even been known to follow polar bears and wolves and then eat whatever they leave behind at meals. Some arctic foxes will travel along floating ice in the ocean to eat the remains of seals that polar bears leave behind, and their island-hopping will occasionally get the best of them; one arctic fox tagged on the coast of Russia was trapped in Northern Alaska. They're truly opportunistic eaters, and this varying diet has probably contributed to the arctic fox's untroubled survival as a species. Lemmings are practically a staple of their diet, and local population changes in lemmings will almost certainly have a mirror effect on the local arctic fox population. Arctic foxes will often bury and hide their spare food for later, and some have made makeshift freezers by digging a hole in permafrost.
HUMAN EFFECT ON SPECIES: The species in general does not seem to be terribly affected by trapping. The number of arctic foxes trapped annually varies wildly, the number having been anywhere between 500 and 17,000 in this century. The demand for arctic fox pelts is not as strong as it once was, but it remains an important part of the economy for many small villages. The species is not anywhere near being endangered, due in part to its adaptive nature and varying diet. The fact that they make homes where most humans never want to live probably also has something to do with humanity's low impact on the species. They are not as careful or wary around humans as red foxes are, and this means that they're probably easier to catch, but it also means that they can be nuisances around settlements. They're quite clever, and this combined with their acceptance of any food that seems vaguely edible means that settlements in areas where arctic foxes exist are extremely wary of them. Locals despise these foxes, because arctic foxes will often approach them and nab what they can find. Amusingly enough, one fisherman has alleged that an arctic fox did in fact steal his lunch. Few doubt him.
OTHER COMMENTS: Arctic Foxes have lived up to 14 years in captivity, but the average lifespan is four or five years in the wild. In the wild, an arctic fox can generally reach up to seven years of age without a large threat of death by old age, but attrition is the rule rather than the exception among arctic foxes. While we're not on the subject of how they were assigned their particular species name, Alopex lagopus roughly translates into "fox with rabbit feet," a reference to the fox's heavily furred (and thus fairly safe) paws.
*Gritchka has informed me that "Terrienniak" is the zoological term for the arctic fox (according to Webster, at least). Gritchka also suggests that the word is Eskimo, but isn't sure. (Nothing I can find with my vast array of tools is any help one way or another, no.)
- NatureZoo, "Arctic Fox" article
- University of Michigan, Museum of Zoology, Arctic Fox http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/alopex/a._lagopus$narrative.html
- Canadian Wildlife Service, "Who's Who"; Arctic Fox entry
- ADF&G Wildlife Notebook Series, "Arctic Fox" http://www.state.ak.us/local/akpages/FISH.GAME/notebook/furbear/arcfox.htm
- NatureWorks, Arctic Fox
- anthropod, for major corrections on "Family and Reproduction"