Hello Earth Rangers! We’ve got a very exciting project update to share with you, coming live and direct from our fox friend, researcher Jeanne Clermont! Jeanne is currently studying the arctic fox population of Bylot Island, Nunavut, and today she’s taking us along with her for an inside look at her exciting adventures. Buckle up and let’s head north – over to you, Jeanne!
I study the arctic fox population of Bylot Island, Nunavut, Canada, and I am usually there from mid-May to mid-August – pre-pandemic, of course! Every day in the field is different as many factors affect our activities, most importantly the weather! But here is a typical day of the beginning of our field season during the month of May, when the ground is still covered by snow (there is already 24h daylight at that time).
When we arrive on the site in May, female foxes spend their time in their dens with their recently born babies. To help figure out how many young each female had, we install automated cameras on each den that will later allow us to count the young when they emerge from the den. That means we have to visit the 115 dens that are spread across our study site, and when the den seems occupied by foxes, we install one or two cameras. As the ground is covered by snow, we use snowmobiles to travel across the site (it would not be possible by foot!).
During a typical day, we wake up around 7am, and enjoy a quick breakfast and coffee together (the fox team fuels up together!) in the warmth of the field camp. Then, we take our maps of the study site displaying the location of all fox dens. We plan ahead what den we are going to visit during that day, trying to maximize our displacements: we want to visit as many dens as possible while reducing the total distance travelled. Those days can be long, and the weather can always surprise us (it can get very foggy!), so we bring with us many warm clothes, thermos of coffee and hot chocolate, and many sweet treats like chocolate bars.
Before leaving we get all the material we need, we grab our maps with the day’s planned route, and we stock the cameras in a sled attached to the snowmobile. We must not forget our radio, to communicate with the other persons on the site if anything happens, and our GPS to help us navigate and find the dens. We also fill the snowmobiles with fuel. We are 4 in the team and we travel 2×2 on snowmobiles.
We use our GPS to help us get to the first den. When we arrive at the den, we have to stay calm and silent to avoid disturbing foxes that may be inside the den. We first walk slowly on the den to find signs of fox activity. These can be faeces, hair, and prey leftovers. We also collect hair samples that may be used later in lab analyses to identify what the foxes have been eating during the winter. When signs of activity are present, we install the automated cameras. We position them (they are mounted on a tripod) so we can see as much of the den as possible. What is really important is that we must see the main entrance of the den, where the foxes will pass through many times a day. The main entrance (hole) can be easily identified as the walls of the hole will be covered by hair, as foxes are molting at that time. When at a den, we are always attentive as we may always observe a fox arriving or leaving the site. This is crucial information as we also want to determine the identity of the parent (adult foxes are marked with colour ear tags allowing to identify them at a distance). When we see a fox, we use our binoculars to identify them.
We try to spend as little time as possible on the den, so when we are finished, we leave and move towards the next den. We usually have time to visit 5 dens before lunch, and we of course always enjoy the lunch break and our hot beverages. After lunch we continue to visit dens and identify foxes when we cross one.
Snowmobiling in the Arctic is not always easy, we often get stuck in snow and spend some time getting the snowmobile out and ready to go! Dens might also be inaccessible by snowmobile and we must walk in deep snow to reach the den – this is often very funny. I remember one time where we had to climb a mountain in snowshoes to reach only one den, I was very tired at the end of the day! And another time, when we visited a den that was on the top of a hill, we slid all the way back down the hill!
At the end of the day, we are very tired when we arrive back at the camp, but we also feel that satisfied and comforted feeling we all experience after a day spent outside during winter. We are always happy to enjoy a warm meal with our colleagues and friends from the other teams. Then, its time to sleep and start over the day after!
What an interesting day! We don’t know about you but we’re totally jealous of Jeanne’s awesome adventures. Tell us in the comments below what your favourite parts are or what you think sounds the most exciting about her day, and don’t forget that you can help support her important research with an arctic fox Wildlife Adoption Kit!