Published on February 11, 2013 by Amy
The Arctic fox (Alopex lagopus), or white fox, as it is often called, is a member of the canid family and is related to other foxes, wolves, and dogs.
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The arctic fox is the only canid that has successfully made a home in the Arctic circle. They are found in the tundras of the arctic areas of Eurasia, North America, Iceland, and Greenland. However, their former range was much more extensive. Their remains have been found in many southern European countries like France, Great Britain, Germany, Poland and Switzerland.
Arctic foxes weigh about 7-9 lb. (3.2-4 kg), have a body length of 21-22 in. (53-55 cm) plus an additional 12 in. (30-31 cm) for the length of the tail, and a shoulder height of (25-30 cm). They have extremely small, rounded ears, which restrict heat loss, and a very large bushy tail that takes up half the animals length. The soles of their feet are covered entirely with hair to prevent frostbite. In fact, this gives them their species name, lagopus, which means hare-footed. Their hair is very thick and bushy, and is much longer in the wintertime than the summertime. Their thick fur has the highest insulation value of any mammal.
Two color phases are known in the arctic fox: the white phase found mostly in winter, and the blue phase found in the summertime. When they moult, the blue foxes turn a dark blue, while the white phase foxes turn brown with lighter underparts. Some foxes are stuck in a certain phase, such as where it stays a constant temperature. Foxes living where it is cold all the time generally stay white, while those living on the coast where it is warmer tend to stay bluish.
Diet and Hunting Behavior:
Arctic foxes are highly opportunistic eaters, and will feed on rodents, lemmings, scavenge from wolf kills of bison, walrus carcass, flightless sea birds, and their eggs. They often cache food in holes dug in the ice, to eat later. The arctic foxes’ population is directly correlated to the lemming. Both their lives exhibit a four year cycle, with the highest fox numbers peaking with the highest lemming numbers.
Social and Reproductive Behavior:
Arctic foxes are perhaps the only canid that has no fear of man. They have been observed stealing food from camps and bothered men skinning seals. This is rather unusual, because the arctic fox has been persecuted just like any other fox for its fur. So it is surprising that they still come into such close contact with people.
The arctic fox can travel extensively throughout its range, and some have been observed 931 mi (1500 km) from where they were originally trapped and tagged. It is believed they are also carried by ice floes in the springtime. Arctic foxes have a distinct seasonal movement pattern. They live in the northernmost parts of their range during the spring and summer, and return inland in autumn to mate and raise their young. Arctic foxes also maintain large home ranges, which can be from 3 – 7 sq. mi (8.6 – 18.5 sq. km), and the home ranges rarely overlap. Territory size is influenced by availability of prey.
The arctic fox appears to be monogamous, with pairs staying together a significant amount of time. Mating season is from February to May. After a gestation period of 53 days, the arctic fox gives birth to a litter of 5-10 cubs in an underground den. This underground den is extensive and has many entrances, which may be used for several generations. The male helps in the raising of the young. The cubs emerge from the den at 3 weeks old, but will not accompany their parents on hunting expeditions until they are 8 weeks old. The group will remain together for up to 6 months, with the male cubs dispersing first.
Compared with other canids, the male fox is probably one of the most attentive and best providers of food during the denning period. Just before the birth of the whelps and while the female is spending her time nursing and caring for the litter, the male hunts for food for her. After 5 – 6 weeks, when the whelps are weaned, the female begins to share the hunting duties with her mate and gradually provides well over half of the food to the growing litter. Although the amount of food provided by the male gradually decreases, he continues to bring food to the den site until the whelps begin to leave the den about 14 – 15 weeks after birth.
The voice of the arctic fox is a sound rarely heard except during the breeding season. Courting foxes communicate with a barking yowl that may be heard over a great distance. Adults also yelp to warn their pups of danger and give a high-pitched undulating whine when disputing territorial claims with neighbouring foxes.
Snowy owls and golden eagles, as well as polar bears, wolverines, and red foxes all prey on arctic foxes, and humans and their dogs will kill them as well. They have been hunted extensively for their thick white fur in Iceland, and have even been captured and raised on fur farms. Diseases also take their toll, with rabies and distemper being the most common. Overall, the arctic fox is not threatened, and continues to thrive.