All the talk (and reality) of the alarming shrinkage of the Arctic sheet whizzed right past a rather speedy Arctic fox who at the end of March of last year began what researchers say is a record-fast 3,506-kilometer journey from Svalbard to Greenland to Ellesmere Island in Canada in 76 days – a rate of 46 kilometers per day.
“We didn’t think it was true,” said Eva Fuglei, a Norwegian Polar Institute researcher helping following the animal that had been fitted with a tracking collar and co-author of an article in the institute’s journal about the trip., in a separate institute interview. “Could the fox have been found dead, the collar taken off and now aboard a boat? But no, there are no boats that go so far up in the ice. So we just had to keep up with what the fox did.”
Fuglei and Arnaud Tarroux from the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research conducted the study resulting in the journal article, which notes there are currently few isolated groups of Arctic foxes. But the rapidly vanishing sea ice may change that.
The fox covered up to 155 kilometers a day during the trek across land, glaciers and the sea ice that served as a trans-continental bridge. It’s the timer researchers have documented in detail an Arctic fox crossing different continents and ecosystems int the Arctic, and the first documented journey from Svalbard to Canada.
It set out from Spitsbergen on March 26, 2018, and reached Greenland 21 days later. The fox made two two-day stops, which Fuglei said might have occurred for a few reasons.
“The sea ice can be inhospitable and demanding to find food for a fox,” she said. “But the sea ice is also dynamic with large and small cracks that open and close in a few days, and in connection with these there can be food– seabirds, for example. The cracks may have been so large that the fox couldn’t cross over them until after a few days. The fox may also have hidden out for snowstorms and let it snow taper down in anticipation of better weather.”
To the surprise of researchers, the fox kept going after reaching land again, crossing the northern part of the country and setting out again on a relatively short sea ice crossing to Ellesmere Island on June 6. Four days later it reached the island. The tracking collar stopped working in early February of this year so researchers won’t be able to follow its fate.
“But it will definitely have to change its food habits,” Fuglei said, noting the Arctic fox population in Ellesmere Island eats mostly lemmings, while the Svalbard foxes hunt in marine environments including scavenging the remnants of carcasses killed polar bears.