The Arctic Circle is one of the most unique parts of the world, home to natural wonders such as the Northern Lights, mountains like Denali, and some of the most amazing wildlife you’ll ever witness. Due to the fact that it is sparsely inhabited by humans, the Arctic features a wide array of animals that have been allowed to live their lives free of human interference. With that in mind, you might be asking yourself: what kinds of animals can I expect to see on a trip to the Arctic.
Many people know about polar bears and caribou, but there are many more creatures that you can only see with a visit to the far north. Here are some of the most common animals that inhabit the Arctic Circle.
Characteristics of Arctic Wildlife
While the Arctic has a wide arrangement of different native species, all of them share basic adaptations for survival in this region. Due to the Arctic’s extremely cold temperatures, any animal that thrives there needs additional protection from the elements. Over the ages, Arctic wildlife have evolved a number of features that keep them safe and healthy.
As mentioned above, due to the freezing temperatures of the Arctic, animals that reside there possess a number of abilities that allow them to conserve heat. These include thick coats of fur or feathers to insulate their bodies, small orifices (ears, nose etc.) that minimize heat loss, and layers of body fat that act as an additional cushion to preserve energy. To accommodate seasonal changes, many animals also boast fur that changes colors from white to brown, allowing them to camouflage themselves no matter the time of year.
Arctic wildlife have also evolved a number of behaviors that protect them from seasonal weather shifts. A common adaptation is hibernation, in which animals sleep during the winter months in order to conserve energy. Some animals also migrate between different locations depending on the season, from feeding grounds to breeding grounds and back again.
Wildlife of the Arctic Circle
Without a doubt, the most famous animal that resides in the Arctic is the polar bear. Making their home on ice floes in the Arctic Ocean, the polar bear is noted for its pure white fur, which is actually clear, though appearing white to the naked eye. Polar bears are the largest land carnivores in the world, with males able to grow over eight feet tall and weigh over 1,500 pounds. Polar bears primarily eat fish and seals and are known for being excellent swimmers, with some polar bears observed swimming for over 50 miles at a stretch.
Often believed to be a remnant from the Pleistocene era, musk oxen are another truly unique Arctic animal. Associated with hunter-gatherer culture, musk oxen have been eaten by humans for millennia, their hides have been used to make clothing and shelter, and their bones and hides used to make tools. Possessing long, thick coats that exaggerate their size, the musk ox is nonetheless one of the largest animals in the world, with males weighing up to 900 pounds.
Similar in appearance to the more common red fox, Arctic foxes are distinguished by their thick, white coats, small, rounded ears, and small muzzles. Found throughout the Arctic region, the Arctic fox is one of the smaller animals of the Arctic Circle, with males weighing around eight pounds (3.8 kilograms) on average. Unlike other Arctic mammals, Arctic foxes do not hibernate and are active year-round, and are known for sporting exceptionally fluffy coats during the winter months.
Another furry critter recognizable to many people is the Arctic hare. Having lived in the Arctic since before the last ice age, Arctic hares have evolved to be larger than other hares, with adults weighing up to 11 pounds (five kilograms). They are also known to possess longer fur and shorter ears than hares from warmer climates. Hares are capable of fighting off most threats save for wolves, and humans have also eaten them and used their coats to make clothing for millennia.
Everyone who ever spent Christmas waiting up for Santa Claus knows all about reindeer, who famously prowl the Arctic. Large and intimidating, reindeer are noted for their thick fur coats, which range in color from brown and olive to pure white. They also possess flat, cleft hooves, allowing them to easily traverse snow and bare ground. Reindeer are herbivores and primarily eat leaves, fine twigs, and lichens.
The Arctic is home to over a hundred different species of bird, but only a dozen species can make their home there year-round. These species include ravens, snowy owls, gyrfalcons, redpolls, gulls, guillemots, and more. Bald eagles, the national bird of the U.S., are also a common sight in the Arctic during the summer months.
Walruses are other notable creatures found in the Arctic. These humble sea-borne mammals are best-known for their massive tusks, which they use to both navigate on land and defend themselves from threats. Walruses are also known for being very large, with males able to grow up to 3,700 pounds (1,700 kilograms). Walruses primarily feed on fish and are known for living in large herds that are sex-segregated outside of breeding season.
The Arctic is also noted for its large whale population. Many species of whale are only part-time residents of the Arctic Circle, migrating there during the summer to forage. However, belugas, narwhals, and bowheads can be found in the region year-round. These massive mammals can easily be spotted off the coast in areas with little human activity.
Finally, visitors to the Arctic are often wowed by its seal population. Bearded, harp, and ringed seals are the most common seals found in the region, with the latter often preyed upon by polar bears. Seals are typically solitary creatures that reside in areas with ice floes, creating breathing holes in patches of thin ice by breaking them with their heads.
This is but a small sampling of the types of wildlife found in the Arctic; there are more than enough species in the region to fill a small encyclopedia. Note that due to seasonal and hibernation cycles, you may not see some of these animals on your Arctic adventure. However, no matter when you visit the Arctic or where you go, you can be confident that you will see some of the most unique and majestic creatures the world has to offer.