A young Arctic fox has been recorded trekking across the polar ice pack from Norway’s Svalbard islands to northern Canada.
Researchers at Norway’s Polar Institute fitted the juvenile female with a GPS tracking device and freed her into the wild in late March last year on the east coast of Spitsbergen, the Svalbard archipelago’s main island.
Over the course of 76 days, the team observed the young fox walk 3,506 km (2,176 miles) across the Arctic ice pack, which equates to an average speed of just over 46 km (28.5 miles) a day.
As reported in Greenland’s Sermitsiaq newspaper, the epic journey “left [the] scientists speechless.”
At the time of release, the fox was still under a year old. She set off west in search of food, reaching Greenland just 21 days later—a journey of 1,512 km—before continuing forward.
55 days later, she was tracked to Canada’s Ellesmere Island—nearly 2,000 km further on.
The scientists think that during her two breaks in northern Greenland, the young fox may have curled up in the snow to sit out bad weather, which is perfectly possible with such thick protective fur, or else found a source of food like seabirds in an open channel of water.
What surprised the researchers was not so much the length of the journey, but the speed with which the fox had covered it—sometimes reaching 155 kilometres per day. No fox has ever been recorded travelling that far that fast before.
Speaking with NRK, Norway’s equivalent of the BBC, Eva Fuglei of the Polar Institute said: “We couldn’t believe our eyes at first. We thought perhaps it was dead, or had been carried there on a boat, but there were no boats in the area. We were quite thunderstruck,”
Fuglei has been working with Arnaud Tarroux of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research to track how the foxes cope with the dramatic changes of the Arctic seasons.
“There’s enough food in the summer, but it gets difficult in winter,” she said. “This is when the Arctic fox often migrates to other geographical areas to find food to survive. But this fox went much further than most others we’ve tracked before—it just shows the exceptional capacity of this little creature.”
Unfortunately, the transmitter stopped working in February, so it’s unlikely that we will ever know what the little fox gets up to in Canada.
According to Fuglei, she will definitely have to change her eating habits since “Ellesmere Island foxes live largely on lemmings, rather than the mainly-marine diet of Svalbard.”
Climate change is having a real impact on the movements of Arctic foxes; the shrinking of the polar ice pack will make epic journeys like this one less and less likely in the future. Svalbard’s Arctic foxes can no longer visit Iceland, for example, and it’s possible that the population could become completely isolated.
There is hope for the longevity of Svalbard’s Arctic fox population, however; according to Fuglei, “higher temperatures could mean more Svalbard reindeer, and the foxes scavenge off their carcasses.”
Featured image: Jonatan Pie/Unsplash