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Home  >  Cool Critters  >  Featured Critters  >  Medium Mammals
Arctic Fox
Cool Critter Factoids
Latin Name: Alopex lagopus
Habitat: Tundra and coastal areas of Alaska on the Arctic
and Bering Seas, and ranging as far south as the Aleutian
Islands. Also in Northern Canada and Europe.
Classification: Mammal, carnivore

People use common phrases about foxes regularly in their conversation. You might hear someone tell that someone is "as clever as a fox." There is a good reason people make these comparisons. The arctic fox is one of Alaska's most resourceful and well-adapted animals.

Short, not Shivering
Arctic foxes are small, compact creatures that are ready to accept the challenge of the winter and starvation in the Alaskan tundra and coastlines. They are usually about the size of a small house pet, weighing around 12 to 15 pounds. They generally don't grow much larger than 2 to 3 feet long. Arctic foxes have short muzzles, ears, and legs. Warm-blooded creatures lose the most body heat from their extremities (the ends of their limbs). Any part of the body that is far away from the heart requires more energy to heat. Arctic foxes have little problem with this because their bodies are short and stumpy. With a compact body, their hearts don't have to work very hard to warm their noses and toes. Thick fur covers their paws and gives them warmth and traction in the winter snow. When they rest, arctic foxes curl their long, bushy tails around their bodies to conserve more heat. It's like walking around with a nice warm blanket in your back pocket.

Think about it:
What's the best way to keep warm in the winter?

Winter Blues
Two phases of arctic foxes live in the Alaska: the blue and the white. Blue arctic foxes are less common and usually can be found in southern mainland Alaskan and the Aleutians. They are gray, almost brown in the summer time. In the winter their coat changes to a bluish-gray. Their hairs are silvery, almost shiny when they are darkest. The fur is oily and easily repels moisture from the fox's body.

White arctic foxes are more common in Alaska. They are brown and gray during the summer time. In the winter, these foxes change to a snowy white color that provides them much needed protection in the tundra, where there are no trees. Arctic foxes require their white camouflage in these areas especially, or they would stick out like delicious meals to predators.

Think about it: Imagine if your hair color changed with the seasons. What color would it be in winter?

I think I'll have a rodent for dessert . . .

Arctic foxes have some strange eating habits. Although they are carnivores, they will eat almost anything to survive. However, lemmings are their favorite prey. Arctic foxes stalk and pounce on the small rodents in the brush, or dig them from out of their underground homes. A single arctic fox might kill thousands of lemmings in a year to feed itself and its family. But because they are so dependent on lemmings, arctic foxes have to be very resourceful when their favorite dish becomes scarce. Lemming populations are unpredictable and at times the arctic fox has trouble finding food. Thankfully, they also eat eggs, hares, voles, small coastal birds, and sometimes berries. Arctic foxes also rely on larger hunters to scavenge for food and carrion. They might scrounge on a dead carcass that a wolf has already killed and left. At times arctic foxes even follow polar bears. They carefully wait for the polar bear to get his fill of a seal, before going in for the leftovers.

Think about it: How do the arctic fox's eating habits help its environment?

Leftovers again?!
Though they can be desperate for food, arctic foxes are not wasteful. If they have more than enough to eat, a fox might burrow a small section in the frozen dirt of its den. This serves as a kind of refrigerator for the fox. It stores excess meals underground so that the fox can survive when food becomes harder to find. Arctic foxes usually burrow their dens in rocks and the sides of hills. In the winter, they can make warm homes in icy snow banks.

Think about it: Do you like cold pizza? Or the last, dry bits of Thanksgiving turkey?

Young Families
Arctic foxes' mating habits are playful. A male and female might scamper and nip at each other before mating. The female might give birth to more than fifteen pups, but the usual litter size is around seven young foxes. The pups are blind and helpless when they are born. They completely depend on their mother and father for the first month and a half of their lives. After her pups are born, the mother stays in the den with them. The father protects the den and searches for food to provide for his family. Competition can be fierce between the young pups, especially if food is scarce. They will fight each other to survive before leaving their families. Arctic foxes are wanderers, and generally live alone, except during mating season. They live for about ten to fifteen years.

Think about it: The need to survive can take competition from friendly to deadly, and not just in a fox's den. Can you think of other examples?

Fears and Furs

Polar bears, wolves, birds, and humans are common predators of arctic foxes. Eagles and wolves especially hunt young pups. Wolves dig and ravage the fox's den to find a helpless, young litter. Arctic foxes can easily seem tame and friendly when they are not hunted. They become shifty and shy if they perceive danger or traps. Many Alaskans hunt and trap arctic foxes for their prized fur, which skin-sewers use to make hats and parkas.

Think about it:
Do you see any connection between the number of predators and the size of the litters? What if, like moose or bears, fox mothers gave birth to only one or two pups at a time? What would happen to their population?

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Image provided by BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc.

Click for Fullsize
Image provided by BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc.

Click for Fullsize
Image provided by BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc.

Click for Fullsize
Image provided by BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc.

Click for Fullsize
Image provided by BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc.

Click for Fullsize
Image provided by BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc.

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