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Wolves and Foxes

Wolves & Foxes

There are members of the dog family present in the Arctic. The smallest of these is the Arctic Fox, about the size of a domestic cat. Its range is circumpolar although in Arctic Scandinavia it is scarce. The Red Fox is steadily moving North into the territory of the Arctic Fox. Then there are the Wolves. The Arctic Wolf is long legged and pale in colour and slightly smaller than grey wolves. Although they hunt in packs, because of the scarcity of prey in the Arctic they need a huge range to support themselves.

Arctic Fox

Arctic Fox
Bold, inquisitive little animals, Arctic Foxes are well adapted to living in the cold, they have small ears and a slightly flatter face than the Red Fox and combined with fur on the undersides of their feet, long very thick fur, shorter tail and legs and a good covering of body fat. The coat of the Arctic Fox can be either blue or white, the blue phase are more common in Greenland and Western Alaska, it has been said that the blue ones are more common around bird cliffs. Arctic Foxes breed during the Arctic summer when there are bird’s eggs and fledglings to feed the pups on. Although the average litter is ten, usually only a couple or so survive, depending on the food supply during the summer. Some foxes prepare food caches for the lean months of winter. A cache found in Greenland is recorded as containing the frozen, decapitated bodies of 42 birds, mostly Little Auks and some Little Auk eggs. Another contained 50 lemmings and 30 Little Auks, all tidily laid out side by side. Arctic Foxes do not hibernate but remain active through the winter.

In the summer the Arctic Fox moults off its splendid warm coat and looks like another species, no matter if the fox is blue or white, in summer that are all brown and skinny looking. During the summer there are lots of food possibilities, birds, lemmings, berries and they have been recorded taking prey as big as moulting geese who are unable to fly away. In winter the foxes are solitary, they turn to carrion, following wolf packs or a polar bear and living off their leftovers. In spring they have been recorded breaking into a ringed seal lair and killing the baby seal. This constitutes a large meal for an Arctic Fox and they sleep by the lair, sleeping and eating until they have finished all of the baby seal. When watching an Arctic Fox in winter pelage, running across snow, its feet don’t seem to touch the ground, it looks rather as if it is being blown across the ground like a ball of white feathers.

Red Fox

Red Fox in Snow
Successful in habitats as varied as forests and major cities, climate change has assisted the Red Fox to expand its range North and allow them to move much further into the territory of the Arctic Fox where it gives unwanted competition in an area where food is scarce at some times of the year. There are even accounts of Red Foxes killing the much smaller and more specialised Arctic Foxes that are living within their territory.The Red Fox also appears in the dark colour phase, the silver fox, and a mixture where the red fox has a cross of dark fur along the back and across the shoulders this is known as a Cross Fox.


The Arctic Wolf is a gray wolf that has adapted to conditions in the Arctic, they are white, have smaller ears and shorter muzzles. It is often thought of as a solitary animal but they are a pack animal that needs to range widely to find enough food. Wolves are highly intelligent and work as a coordinated team to bring down caribou and musk oxen. Unlike the big cats, wolves are unable to kill their prey outright and will eat the prey animal alive until it dies from blood loss or shock. The packs that feed on migratory caribou will follow their food source as it migrates but the wolves of the Canadian Islands that eat Peary Caribou and Musk oxen, stay in the north during the winter. Failure of the prey animal can mean extreme hardship and death for these wolves on the edge.

While assisting in clearing some of the rubbish left at Ward Hunt Island by various North Pole expeditions, Bryan was with a team that found the body of a male wolf, with teeth broken down by opening the old, but still full, tin cans that were scattered around the tundra, they also found cans that had been opened by wolves and some that had just been punctured. The rubbish was all removed and the wolves had to move away from a diet of fast food.

Canadian Wildlife Services Arctic Fox Page

Canadian Wildlife Services Red Fox Page

NOAA’s Arctic Wolf Essay by David Mech

Text © B & C Alexander

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