Vulpes lagopus 

Scope: Europe
Language: English

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Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family
Animalia Chordata Mammalia Carnivora Canidae

Scientific Name: Vulpes lagopus Linnaeus, 1758
Regional Assessments:
Common Name(s):
English Arctic Fox, Polar Fox
French Isatis, Renard Polaire, Reynard Polaire
Spanish Zorro Ártico
Alopex lagopus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Taxonomic Notes: "The Arctic fox is sometimes placed in a subgenus of Vulpes and sometimes in Canis. However, the species is still most often placed in Alopex. The most closely related species are swift fox (Vulpes velox) and kit fox (V. macrotis), neither of which occurs in the tundra." (Sillero-Zubiri et al. 2004).

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Least Concern (Regional assessment) ver 3.1
Year Published: 2007
Date Assessed: 2006-10-31
Needs updating
Assessor(s): P. Hersteinsson, A. Landa, N.E. Eide, J.D.C. Linnell, H. Henttonnen, A. Tikhonov, A. Angerbjörn.
Reviewer(s): Helen Temple and Craig Hilton-Taylor
European regional assessment: Least Concern (LC)
EU 25 regional assessment: Critically Endangered (CR)

At the regional level, the species is Least Concern (there are large populations of >10,000 mature individuals, occupying a large area, and populations are generally stable). However, there may nevertheless be cause for concern in north-western mainland Russia, where population densities apparently are low and have failed to recover despite a decrease in hunting pressure. Little is known about the arctic fox in this region, and more information (and action) is urgently needed.

Within the EU, the arctic fox is found only in Sweden and Finland, where its total population numbers at most 50-70 animals. In Sweden the population is very small but appears to have stabilized, whereas in Finland no breeding has been recorded since 2000 and the population can be assumed to be decreasing. Fennoscandian populations are all tiny and highly fragmented, so no rescue effect should be expected from outside the EU. Consequently the species qualifies as Critically Endangered (D1, C2a(i)).

Arctic foxes in Fennoscandia are isolated from other populations, and thus can be described as a subpopulation (according to global Red List guidelines). Within that subpopulation there are a number of further isolated subpopulations, each numbering less than 50 individuals. The Fennoscandian subpopulation is assessed as Critically Endangered under Criterion C2a(i), as it numbers <250 mature individuals, and there are ongoing declines (although populations in Norway and Sweden are relatively stable, the Finnish population is declining).

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:Arctic foxes have a circumpolar distribution (Corbet 1978, Hall 1981, Ginsberg and Macdonald 1990, Pulliainen 1999, Wilson and Ruff 1999), occurring in three distinct ecological situations. Arctic foxes are found throughout the area of continental tundra that covers the northern coasts of Alaska, Canada and Siberia. They occur on most of the arctic islands including all islands of the Canadian high arctic, Greenland, Iceland, Svalbard, Jan Mayen, Bjørnøya, Novaya Zemlja, Wrangel Island, and the Komandor Islands (in addition, they have been introduced to some of the Aleutian Islands: Bailey 1992). Thirdly, they occur on the alpine tundra that occurs on the mountain ranges found along the spine of the Scandinavian peninsula (including the Kola region). Arctic foxes are also observed in the open drift ice. In a pan-European context arctic foxes occur in four geographic areas that represent all three ecological situations – continental tundra in western Siberia (Russia), arctic islands in Svalbard (Norway) and Iceland, and alpine tundra in Fennoscandia (Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola peninsula of Russia). Southern and altitudinal limitations on its global distribution is most probably set by intraguild competition with the larger red fox (Hersteinsson and Macdonald 1992). In Europe Arctic foxes occur from sea level to 1,500 m (N.E. Eide pers. comm. 2007).
Countries occurrence:
Finland; Iceland; Norway; Russian Federation; Svalbard and Jan Mayen; Sweden
Additional data:
Upper elevation limit (metres):1500
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]

Population:The world population of arctic foxes is in the order of several hundred thousand animals (see Sillero-Zubiri et al. 2004 for specific details). Most populations fluctuate widely in numbers between years in response to varying lemming numbers. The species is common in the tundra areas of Russia, Canada, coastal Alaska, Greenland and Iceland. Exceptions are Fennoscandia, Mednyi Island (Komandor Islands, Russia) and the Pribilof Islands, where populations are at critically low levels (Sillero-Zubiri et al. 2004).

The situation in Europe varies between areas. It is most realistic to consider the four geographic areas of occurrence separately:

Western Siberia (from the White Sea to Novaya Zemlya). There are no reliable data about arctic fox numbers from this region, although Sillero-Zubiri et al. (2004) estimate that the total Russian population (including eastern Siberia) could potentially be in the order of 200,000-800,000 animals. In general in Western Russia, the species is sparse on the mainland but common on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, where some thousands of animals can be estimated on the each island (A. Tikhonov pers. comm. 2006). Although the hunting pressure on this species is now very low all over Russia, mainland populations may not have recovered from historical overhunting (A. Tikhonov pers. comm. 2006).

Svalbard. There has been no total census of arctic foxes on this archipelago, but the population is known to be numerous and stable. The arctic fox went extinct on the island Bjørnøya (part of the Svalbard archipelago) and on Jan Mayen (an isolated island further south between Svalbard and Iceland). The two populations were severely depleted following early 20th century extermination efforts (Fuglei et al. 1998). On Bjørnøya the arctic fox population has re-established by immigration over sea ice in recent years, and breeding is again documented, while no foxes have been observed on Jan Mayen since before 1998 (E. Fuglei pers. comm. 2007).

Iceland. Numbers of arctic foxes on Iceland have fluctuated as a result of differing management practices. From a low point in the 1970s of around 1,300 individuals, the population reached 8,000 individuals in 2003 and is still increasing (Hersteinsson 2006).

Fennoscandia. Arctic foxes were once very abundant throughout the alpine tundra habitats of Fennoscandia, but were greatly reduced due to over-harvesting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They have basically never recovered, despite having been protected for over 75 years (Østbye et al. 1978, Hersteinsson et al. 1989, Linnell et al. 1999, Kaikusalo et al. 2000). The most recent estimate is 120 adults in Norway, Sweden and Finland, around 50 of which are found in Sweden (Angerbjörn et al. 1995, Sillero-Zubiri et al. 2004, Angerbjörn et al. 2005), 50 in Norway (Frafjord and Rofstad 1998, Linnell et al. 1999), and 5-15 in Finland (Kaikusalo et al. 2000, Angerbjörn et al. 2005). The population on the Kola peninsula has not been accurately censused. Estimates range from c.40 individuals (Angerbjörn et al. 2005), and less than 100 individuals (A. Tikhonov pers. comm. 2006), to 1,000-2,000 animals (Potansky 1993). The latter figure is considered likely to be an overestimate (Sillero-Zubiri et al. 2004). Genetic research showed that the Arctic fox in Scandinavia presently is subdivided into four subpopulations, and that the Kola Peninsula and northwest Russia together form a large fifth subpopulation. Current dispersal between the subpopulations seems to be very low (Dalén et al. 2006). The population trend in Norway and Sweden is stable, but in Finland the population can be assumed to be decreasing as there has been no breeding documented since 2000 (H. Henttonen pers. comm. 2006).
Current Population Trend:Stable
Additional data:
Population severely fragmented:No

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology:The species is confined to arctic and alpine tundra, above or north of the treeline. The arctic fox is an opportunistic predator and scavenger, but in most inland areas the species is heavily dependent on fluctuating rodent populations. In Fennoscandia, the Norwegian lemming Lemmus lemmus was the main prey in summer (85% frequency of occurrence in faeces) followed by birds and reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) (Frafjord 1995, Elmhagen et al. 2000). Changes in fox populations have been observed to follow those of their main prey in three- to five-year cycles (Angerbjörn et al. 1995, Angerbjörn et al. 1999). The typical response to lemming peak-years is an increase in both the number of litters and litter size (Tannerfeldt and Angerbjörn 1996). Foxes living near ice-free coasts have access to both inland prey and sea birds, seal carcasses, fish and invertebrates connected to the marine environment, leading to relatively stable food availability and a more generalist strategy especially in areas without cyclic rodent populations (Hersteinsson and Macdonald 1996, Dalerum and Angerbjörn 2000, Eide et al. 2005). In Iceland, lamb carcasses frequently are found among prey remains at dens resulting in the species being considered a pest. Although individual foxes may indeed prey on lambs, it is more likely that a large proportion of the lambs have been scavenged (Hersteinsson 1996). Arctic foxes are known to prey on wildfowl (Eide et al. 2005) and occasionally kill reindeer calves (Prestrud 1992a).

Foxes reach sexual maturity at 10 months, and the average lifespan for animals that reach adulthood is approximately three years (Angerbjörn et al. 2004). In more stable coastal environments the average age is probably higher (Prestrud 1992a). Arctic fox life history traits reflect adaptations to differing constraints in resource availability. Arctic foxes in unstable environments (e.g., habitats dominated by cyclic prey) have higher litter size but do not reproduce every year, whereas arctic foxes in stable environments (e.g., coastal habitats with bird cliffs), have a smaller litter size but reproduce every year (Tannerfeldt and Angerbjörn 1996, Angerbjörn et al. 2004). Social organization (home range size and territoriality) and hence local density of arctic fox is also highly influenced by resource availability; home range sizes range from 10 km2 in stable coastal habitats up to 52 km2 in more fluctuating environments (Angerbjörn et al. 1997, Strand et al. 2000, Eide et al. 2004). Hence predictable coastal habitats support a denser population of foxes compared to more unpredictable habitats. Arctic foxes tend to be territorial, with a mated pair occupying a common territory (Hersteinsson and Macdonald 1986, Prestrud 1992b, Landa et al. 1998, Tannerfeldt and Angerbjörn 1996, Eide et al. 2004). Additional, but non-reproductive adults may also be present within the territory even though their function as “helpers” may be somewhat limited. In some rare cases it has been observed that two adult females will reproduce within the same territory (Strand et al. 2000, Angerbjörn et al. 2004, Bodil Elmhagen pers. comm.). As a result of these home range sizes and territorial social organisation typical densities can vary from 20 adults per 100 km2 to 2-4 per 100 km2. A noticeable feature of arctic fox ecology is dependence on and year round use of dens. These dens are normally excavated in sandy soil and can reach a considerable size (Østbye et al. 1978, Dalerum et al. 2002, Frafjord 2003). After several decades, or even centuries, of use they can acquire many tens of openings. In areas without sandy deposits foxes use crevices in cliffs or moraines as dens (Prestrud 1992b).

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s): Globally the large populations on the continental tundra of Alaska, Canada and Siberia (except Kola) and the island of Greenland are all harvested by trapping or shooting. The main motivation is for fur, although they are killed around settlements in parts of Greenland to reduce the risk of rabies being spread to sled dogs and humans. There is nothing that indicates that these populations are currently threatened by overharvest. The small population on the Komandor islands is threatened by a form of mange (Otodectes cynotis: Goltsman et al. 1996).

In Europe the threats vary between regions.

The animals occupying western Siberia are exposed to trapping, but nothing indicates that this is representing an immediate threat. There is no other information available about threats to this population.

On Svalbard arctic foxes are trapped, but the extent of this trapping is limited to areas close to settlements, and it is therefore not regarded as a threat (Fuglei et al. 1998). Possible threats include accumulation of long distance transported pollutants and climate change, which may influence sea ice conditions in the future. The arctic fox on Svalbard (Norway) has higher levels of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) than foxes in other parts of the arctic (Norheim 1978, Wang-Andersen et al. 1993, Fuglei et al. 2007). The levels are similar to those found in polar bears from Svalbard and Greenland (Verreault et al. 2005). Such high concentrations of contaminants may have possible toxic health effects. The island Bjørnøya holds a small, recently re-established population of arctic foxes, while no foxes have been reported on Jan Mayen since before 1998 (E. Fuglei pers comm. 2007). Arctic foxes on these islands are protected and the main threat appears to be lack of influx of new animals and the extremely small population size. These islands were part of the Svalbard metapopulation, as sea ice allowed connectivity. Climate change through reduction in the extent of the sea ice might in fact explain why the arctic fox has not re-established on Jan Mayen (E. Fuglei pers comm. 2007).

On Iceland the status of arctic fox has changed. Historically they were heavily persecuted because of the belief that they were involved in depredation on livestock. Recent legislation has restricted harvest and the population is increasing (Hersteinsson 2006), although in many areas they are still hunted year round.

In Fennoscandia arctic foxes are scattered along the peninsula in very small populations that are relatively isolated from each other. The alpine tundra habitat is naturally fragmented, but the degree of population fragmentation has increased due to the extinction of local populations. The populations have not increased despite over 75 years of protection.

Overexploitation due to hunting and trapping was most probably the originate threat and the reason behind the dramatic decline of arctic foxes in Fennoscandia (Østbye et al. 1978, Hersteinsson et al. 1989, Angerbjörn et al. 1995, Linnell et al. 1999, Kaikusalo et al. 2000). The value of arctic fox fur together with high grants for killing foxes gave motivation for this strong persecution. In 1924 Norwegian trappers could get 25% more than an average year's salary for a peasant for only one skin (Østbye and Pedersen 1990). Establishment of the fox farm industry at the beginning of 1900 probably also forced the decline further. Live trapping of foxes also continued also after protection. Arctic fox den sites are easy to spot and several dens were dug out during the sixties to catch cubs to bring in to fur farms (Østbye et al. 1978).

The exact reason why the population in not responding to protection is not understood, but a range of factors are believed to be involved, including:

Intraguild competition with red foxes. Red fox populations have increased and expanded in range throughout the 20th century, both in the boreal region and above the treeline to alpine tundra habitat (Selås and Vik 2006, Elmhagen et al. 2007). It is known that they have occupied former arctic fox dens in the most productive, low lying areas (Østbye et al. 1978, Linnell et al. 1999, Frafjord 2003, Tannerfeldt et al. 2002, Kaikusalo et al. 2000). Red foxes occupy the same niche and eat the same prey as arctic foxes (Elmhagen et al. 2002), they can kill arctic fox pups and adults (Frafjord et al. 1989, Tannerfeldt et al. 2002), and arctic foxes avoid breeding close to red foxes (Tannerfeldt et al. 2002). Therefore the potential for a negative effect is clearly present.

Genetics. The remaining arctic fox populations are all very small and relatively isolated from each other. Today the population consists of four genetically distinct subpopulations with very little exchange of dispersing animals (Dalén et al. 2002, Dalén et al. 2006). Therefore the potential for inbreeding is high. So far there are no obvious signs of inbreeding depression but individual genetic variation was negatively associated with fitness (Dalén et al. unpublished). Although there is still a surprisingly high degree of variation, by comparison with historical samples it is clear that 25% of the variation has been lost (Nyström et al. 2006). Hybridization with arctic foxes that have escaped from fur farms has also been documented. Genetic mapping revealed hybridization of genotypes originating from escaped farm foxes (Norén et al. 2005), mixing in haplotypes not found in the wild Fennoscandian arctic fox (Dalén et al. 2005). The amount of reported escapes of farm foxes has increased in recent years and even breeding has been observed (N.E. Eide pers. comm. 2006). However at present demographic stochasticity probably remains a greater threat than inbreeding.

Small population size. The small size of populations directly increases their individual risks of extinction, especially when they occupy a fluctuating environment with strong year to year variation in the probability of reproducing (Linnell et al. 1999, Loison et al. 2001). Extinction risk is further increased by fragmentation, which reduces the chance of rescue effects occurring (Dalén et al. 2006).

Climate change. Projected climate change would intensify fragmentation of the Fennoscandian mountain plateau even further, and may exclude the arctic fox from lower lying alpine tundra areas. For a review of the potential impacts of climate change on arctic foxes see Ims and Fuglei (2005).

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions: Occurrence in protected areas
Good information is available for Norway, Sweden and Finland. For Iceland, Arctic foxes could potentially appear in most protected areas (Sillero-Zubiri et al. 2004).

Norway: The National Parks Blåfjell-Skjækerfjella, Børgefjell, Saltfjellet, Øvre Dividal, Reisa. On Svalbard Arctic foxes are found in most protected areas.
Sweden: The National Parks Sarek, Padjelanta, and Stora Sjöfallet, in the county of Norrbotten; the Nature Reserves Vindelfjällen, Marsfjället, and Gitsfjället, in the county of Västerbotten; the Nature Reserves Hamrafjället, Henvålen-Aloppan, Vålådalen, Gråberget-Hotagsfjällen, Frostvikenfjällen, Sösjöfjällen and Skäckerfjällen, in the county of Jämtland.
Finland: Malla, Käsivarren erämaa, Iiton palsasuot, Saanan luonnonsuojelualue, Muotkatunturin erämaa, Hanhijänkä Pierkivaaran jänka, Pieran Marin jänkä, Kevo, Kaldoaivin erämaa, Paistunturin erämaa, Pulmankijärvi.

There appear to be no significant protected areas in the the Kola peninsula that contain arctic foxes.

It is strictly protected under the Bern Convention (Appendix II), and is listed on Annex II* and Annes IV of the EU Habitats & Species Directive. In most of its range, the arctic fox is not protected under national legislation. However, the species and its dens have had total legal protection in Sweden since 1928, in Norway since 1930, and in Finland since 1940. In Europe, the arctic fox is a priority species under the Actions by the Community relating to the Environment (ACE).

Conservation measures taken
Action plans based on status reports have been developed for arctic foxes in Sweden (Löfgren and Angerbjörn 1998) and Norway (Direktoratet for Naturforvaltning 2003), and a status report has also been published for Finland (Kaikusalo et al. 2000). In Sweden and Finland, a species-specific conservation project has been completed (SEFALO), and a second is under way (SEFALO+), the latter also involving work in Norway (Angerbjörn et al. 2005). Measures taken include den monitoring (and protection of den sites by excluding ptarmigan hunting in Sweden only), supplementary feeding, red fox control, disease research, as well as building public awareness and education work (Angerbjörn et al. 2005). In Norway a captive breeding programme on arctic foxes was started in 2000 and extended in 2007. The first successful captive reproduction and release of foxes happened in 2006 (A. Landa pers. comm. 2006). A research programme on red fox control was started in northern Norway in 2004. Programmes to build public awareness have also been started in Norway by non-governmental organizations ( A number of research projects on the arctic fox are underway, of which further details can be found in Sillero-Zubiri et al. (2004).

Citation: P. Hersteinsson, A. Landa, N.E. Eide, J.D.C. Linnell, H. Henttonnen, A. Tikhonov, A. Angerbjörn. 2007. Vulpes lagopus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2007: e.T899A13090095. . Downloaded on 14 August 2018.
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