Where to See an Arctic Fox in Iceland

March 9, 2021 Doug O'Neill

Wildlife stories that go viral typically elicit two kinds of responses: we’re either gobsmacked to learn about surprising animal behaviors that had never before crossed our radar—or we doubt the story in question. (Who doesn’t recall the hand-washing orangutan in the Florida zoo that apparently started washing her hands with soap and water—evidently mimicking the COVID-preventative measures of her keepers?) And then there was the video of the six-month-old giant panda cub that clung to her zookeeper’s leg and simply wouldn’t let go. 

One of the most surprising wildlife stories to blow up the internet in 2019 involved a young Arctic fox that walked across the ice from Svalbard, in the Norwegian Arctic, all that way to northern Canada, a journey of 3,506 km (2,176 miles) in 76 days. We know this to be true thanks to the GPS tracking devices clipped onto the determined fox by the research team at Norway's Polar Institute. The fox was tracked all the way to Canada's Ellesmere Island. It seems that on her best days the Arctic fox (a female) covered as many as 155 kilometres. 

Seeing Arctic Foxes in Iceland, Greenland, Svalbard and the Canadian High Arctic

Arctic foxes are opportunistic feeders. They're known for eating whatever is available,
including carrion. Photo: Quark Expeditions

Arctic foxes can be seen throughout the Arctic region, showing up in Iceland, Spitsbergen (the largest island in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago), Greenland, the Canadian High Arctic and other northern regions. They’re true survivors with a reputation for outwitting predators and finding food in almost any situation. Queue the expression “clever as a fox.” Read our blog “Meet the Arctic Fox: A beautiful and resourceful Far North Inhabitant.” 

Let’s start by talking about where to see an Arctic fox in Iceland. The feisty little animal holds a special place in the hearts of Icelanders: it’s the country’s only native mammal. Scientists believe that the Arctic Fox traveled to Iceland  at the end of the last Ice Age by trotting across the ice-covered sea from Greenland and mainland Scandinavia. Seeing Arctic foxes in Iceland has been an everyday occurrence ever since. 

Where in Iceland can you see an Arctic Fox

While the Arctic fox—in theory—can be found all over Iceland, the majority of them inhabit the Westfjords, the large peninsula in northwestern Iceland, which is home to the largest bird cliffs in Iceland and, consequently, that’s where to see an Arctic fox in Iceland. Birds constitute a significant part of the Arctic fox’s diet. Your best bet if you’re intent on seeing Arctic Foxes in Icelandwhile you’re inWestfjords is the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, which was created in 1975 specifically to protect the Arctic fox. The fact that there are few roads in the 580-square-kilometre (220 square mile) protected domain of tundra, cliffs, flowering fields and ice is another boon to this species of fox. Fewer roads mean fewer people. According to Westfjord officials, “You can hike days on end without seeing a single person. The nature is pure and tranquility unmatched.” Factor in the hunting ban and the bird-packed cliffs and you’ll have excellent chances of seeing Arctic foxes in Iceland. As noted by many travelers, other regions where visitors have seen Arctic foxes include Spitsbergen and Greenland.

How many Arctic Foxes are in Iceland?

The sustainability website Treehugger estimates there are about 8,000 Arctic foxes in Iceland. That’s how many Arctic foxes are in Iceland today—most of them residing in Hornstrandir Nature Reserve. It’s estimated there are several hundred thousand Arctic foxes in the world. Regional populations vary depending on food supply and whether fox-hunting is allowed or not. Until the 1950s foxes in Iceland were killed to protect flocks of sheep and other farm animals. Thanks to the protection offered by the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve program, the species is not threatened in Iceland. 

An Arctic fox scouts out its next meal at the  famous Alkefjellet bird cliffs on Spitsbergen Island
in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. Photo: Acacia Johnson

What does the Arctic fox eat in Iceland?

The Arctic fox is the smallest member of the canid family,usually measuring between 75 centimetres and 115 centimetres long—and much of that length is attributed to its tail. Canadian Geographic describes the Arctic fox as the “size of large house cat.”  Understanding that the species is quite small, just what does the Arctic fox eat in Iceland? Arctic foxes are known as“opportunistic feeders,” basically making a meal out of whatever insect, plant food or animal is available (alive or dead). In Iceland, the foxes primarily eat birds, bird eggs, fish, and carrion. This is in stark contrast to the diet of theArctic fox in Ellesmere Island, Canada, which relies on a steady diet of lemmings. But in Iceland, where there are no lemmings, the Arctic fox has adapted. While birds are the mainstay for most Arctic foxes in Iceland, the four-legged creatures will also make a meal out of eggs, berries, reptiles, and amphibians. Arctic foxes in Spitsbergen, in Arctic Norway, however, are known to follow polar bears and wolves to eat the remains of their kills.        

In addition to eating  birds, berries, eggs, reptiles and other small animals, Arctic foxes are known to follow
polar bears and wolves in order to eat the remains of their kill. Photo: Dave Merron

Why are Arctic foxes endangered?

As with the plight of numerous wildlife species today, it’s not surprising that many travelers are asking why are Arctic foxed endangered? But is it? At the moment, according to World Wildlife, the Arctic Fox is categorized as “least concern” on the extinction scale. A least-concern species is “a species that has been categorized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as evaluated as not being a focus of species conservation. They do not qualify as threatened or near threatened.”

But, like any wildlife species, the Arctic fox’s vulnerability ebbs and flows depending on various conditions. Global warming, which poses threats to many species, means reduced habitat. As ice retreats and boreal forests are impacted, the Arctic fox’s habitat is diminished. There’s also—depending on the region—the threat of hunting and the ever-growing competition for food and habitat posed by the red fox which is moving northward. Luckily, some regional laws have changed—in favour of foxes. Fox pelts were fashionable in times gone by which meant they were frequently hunted, but that has changed. Life improved for the species in Iceland with the implementation of laws forbidding farmers to use poison to kill off foxes that had been preying on chickens, sheep and other small farm animals.

The fate of Arctic foxes in other regions depends on the continued availability (or not) of their main food resources. It’s not so much a question of why are Arctic foxes endangered but what we can do globally to ensure they’re never endangered in the future—anywhere? Polar operators like Quark Expeditions are committed to wildlife conservation. While you’ll get to see Arctic foxes on an expedition with Quark Expeditions, at no time will your visit impact the wildlife’s safety or well-being. 

Do Arctic foxes hibernate?

Considering the animal inhabits the Arctic, it’s fair to ask where do Arctic foxes hibernate? The reality is, Arctic foxes do not hibernate, though they do fatten up for winter knowing instinctively that food sources will be scarcer once the snow arrives and temperatures fall. The late-season weight gain gives the Arctic fox an extra layer of insulation. Some foxes change location before the full onslaught of winter. Arctic foxes have evolved with short legs and thick furs, and they’ve developed a system of curling up when they sleep during winter so they minimize their body surface exposed to cold. In addition, the Arctic fox turns white in winter, enabling it to blend into the snowy landscape. 

For travelers curious where to see an Arctic fox in Iceland or any other Arctic region, consider a guided polar expedition such as Quark Expeditions’ Three Arctic Islands: Iceland, Greenland and Spitsbergen. And to see Arctic foxes in Canada, check out the itinerary for Canada’s Remote Arctic: Northwest Passage to Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg Islands.

About the Author

Doug O'Neill

A love of nature and writing has enabled Doug O'Neill to visit almost 50 countries around the world—and to immerse himself in some of the most incredible nature settings. Doug's role as Brand Copywriter at Quark Expeditions has been a natural step on a journey that started with a degree in Environmental Studies and later a Certificate in Journalism. When not travelling, Doug is usually hiking: he's a certified hike leader with Hike Ontario and the Bruce Trail Conservancy. He's the co-author of a nature book, “110 Nature Hot Spots in Manitoba and Saskatchewan,” published by Firefly Books in 2019. Says Doug: "Few destinations rival the Polar Regions—not just for the staggering beauty and incredible wildlife, but for the transformative experiences that occur the moment you set foot in the most remote parts of the world."

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