Graduate student Alysa spends a lot of time in Hudson Bay studying northern species with Dr. Lunn. We’re lucky to have her stop by the Wild Wire to introduce us to one of these adorable Arctic animals.What animal lives in the Arctic, has four legs, thick white fur, travels across the sea ice to find food, and is being affected by climate change? You’d be right if you guessed Polar bear, but the animal I’m thinking about is the Arctic fox!
How is the Arctic fox adapted to the Arctic?
The Arctic fox is a small mammal (not much bigger than a house cat!) that lives in Arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere, including Canada. To survive in this harsh habitat, the Arctic fox has some special adaptations. Its muzzle, legs and ears are short to prevent heat loss, and it has a thick layer of body fat and very thick fur to keep warm. Also, their fur is brown in the summer but turns white in the winter to help them blend in with their environment! Now that’s pretty neat!
What do Arctic foxes eat?
Arctic foxes are hunters and scavengers that eat lemmings, voles, fish, bird eggs, and even berries and seaweed. In certain regions, Arctic foxes will follow Polar bears out on the sea ice during the winter to scavenge on their leftover meals. The fox has to be careful though, or else it can become a Polar bear meal!
How is its habitat changing?
The Arctic fox is not endangered, but it (along with other northern animals) is currently facing a major problem: habitat shifts due to climate change.
Years ago, the Arctic fox was the only fox around for miles, so it could live and eat without much competition. However, because the temperatures in the north are changing, species that prefer warmer places are now moving north into the Arctic fox’s habitat. One such species is the Red fox.
The Red fox is a much bigger and aggressive fox that dominates the Arctic fox. Red foxes will outhunt them and take over their dens, leaving the Arctic fox without food or a home.
What are scientists doing about it?
Unlike humans, animals can’t just put on or take off a jacket when the weather changes, and they certainly can’t move their family across the country to avoid nasty neighbours. That’s why scientists are trying to figure out which habitats are important for these animals so we can all help protect them.
To do this, scientists do habitat selection research. They look into why animals pick certain spots as the best place in their environment to live, such as places with lots of food to eat or shelter from harsh weather. Conserving a habitat that has all the important things that an animal needs will make it easier for them to find food, be safe, mate and be healthier overall. What parts of your “habitat” are most important to you and your health? Maybe a big backyard, a soccer field at your school, food in your fridge, a warm place to sleep at night, or even nature trails to go hiking?
Habitat conservation is especially important for species that live in environments that are changing. Animals can have a tough time adapting to changes that happen very fast, and right now the Arctic is changing rapidly! We need to save habitats that Arctic animals depend on most before the environment changes too much, which is why studying the habitat needs of northern animals is so important.
We know that Arctic foxes need to live in the cold, away from strong competitors, and have access to multiple food sources. One group of scientists that looked at European Arctic foxes predicted that their habitat could decrease by up to 56% by the year 2080 because of increasing temperatures, increases in the number of predators (Red fox!) and reduced food. If we want Arctic fox populations to exist forever, we will have to make sure we conserve suitable habitats for both Arctic and Red foxes.