Alopex lagopus


Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family

Scientific Name: Alopex lagopus
Species Authority: (Linnaeus, 1758)
Common Name/s:
English Arctic Fox, Polar Fox
French Renard Polaire, Isatis, Reynard Polaire
Spanish Zorro Ártico
Alopex lagopus x
Vulpes lagopus Linnaeus, 1758
Taxonomic Notes: Sometimes placed in the genus Vulpes (most recently by Wozencraft 2005) and sometimes in Canis. However, the species is here retained in the genus Alopex where it is most often included.

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Least Concern ver 3.1
Year Published: 2008
Date Assessed: 2008-06-30
Assessor/s: Angerbjörn, A., Hersteinsson , P. & Tannerfeldt, M.
Reviewer/s: Sillero-Zubiri, C. & Hoffmann, M. (Canid Red List Authority)
The Arctic Fox has a circumpolar distribution in all Arctic tundra habitats, with a global population in the order of several hundred thousand animals. Most populations fluctuate widely in numbers between years in response to varying lemming numbers. In most areas population status is believed to be good.
2004 Least Concern

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:The Arctic Fox has a circumpolar distribution in all Arctic tundra habitats. It breeds north of and above the tree line on the Arctic tundra in North America and Eurasia and on the alpine tundra in Fennoscandia, ranging from northern Greenland at 88°N to the southern tip of Hudson Bay, Canada, 53°N. The southern edge of the species' distribution range may have moved somewhat north during the 20th century resulting in a smaller total range (Hersteinsson and Macdonald 1992). The species inhabits most Arctic islands but only some islands in the Bering Strait. The Arctic Fox was also introduced to previously isolated islands in the Aleutian chain at the end of the 19th century by fur industry (Bailey 1992). It has also been observed on the sea ice up to the North Pole.

During the last glaciation, the Arctic Fox had a distribution along the ice edge, and Arctic Fox remains have been found in a number of Pleistocene deposits over most of Europe and large parts of Siberia (Chesemore 1975).
Canada; Finland; Greenland; Iceland; Norway; Russian Federation; Svalbard and Jan Mayen; Sweden; United States (Alaska, Aleutian Is. - Introduced)
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. Most populations fluctuate widely in numbers between years in response to varying lemming numbers. Only a few populations have been studied directly. In most areas, however, population status is believed to be good. The species is common in the tundra areas of Russia, Canada, coastal Alaska, Greenland and Iceland. Exceptions are Fennoscandia, Mednyi Island (Russia) and Pribilof Islands, where populations are at critically low levels. On the Pribilof Islands, fox populations are now low and appear to be declining further. Vagrant Arctic Foxes are common over the northern sea-ice where they follow polar bears as scavengers.
Population Trend: Stable

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology: Arctic and alpine tundra on the continents of Eurasia, North America and the Canadian archipelago, Siberian islands, Greenland, inland Iceland and Svalbard. Subarctic maritime habitat in the Aleutian island chain, Bering Sea Islands, Commander Islands and coastal Iceland.

The Arctic Fox is an opportunistic predator and scavenger but in most inland areas, the species is heavily dependent on fluctuating rodent populations. The species' main prey items include lemmings, both Lemmus spp. and Dicrostonyx spp. (Macpherson 1969; Angerbjörn et al. 1999). In Fennoscandia, Lemmus lemmus was the main prey in summer (85% frequency of occurrence in faeces) followed by birds (Passeriformes, Galliformes and Caridriiformes, 34%) and reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) (21%; Elmhagen et al. 2000). In winter, ptarmigan and grouse (Lagopus spp.) are common prey in addition to rodents and reindeer (Kaikusalo and Angerbjörn 1995). Changes in fox populations have been observed to follow those of their main prey in three- to five-year cycles (Macpherson 1969; Angerbjörn et al. 1999).

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 (Hersteinsson and Macdonald 1996). In late winter and summer, foxes found in coastal Iceland feed on seabirds (Uria aalge, U. lomvia), seal carcasses and marine invertebrates. Inland foxes rely more on ptarmigan in winter, and migrant birds, such as geese and waders, in summer (Hersteinsson and Macdonald 1996). In certain areas, foxes rely on colonies of Arctic geese, which can dominate their diet locally (Samelius and Lee 1998).
Systems: Terrestrial; Marine

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s): Hunting for fur has long been a major mortality factor for the Arctic Fox. With the decline of the fur hunting industry, the threat of over-exploitation is lowered for most Arctic Fox populations. In some areas gene swamping by farm-bred blue foxes may threaten native populations. There can also be indirect threats such as diseases and organochlorine contaminants, or direct persecution (as on St. Paul Island for example). Misinformation as to the origin of Arctic Foxes on the Pribilofs continues to foster negative attitudes and the long-term persistence of this endemic subspecies is in jeopardy.

The Arctic Fox remains the single most important terrestrial game species in the Arctic. Indigenous peoples have always utilized its exceptional fur; and with the advent of the fur industry, the Arctic Fox quickly became an important source of income. Today, leg-hold traps and shooting are the main hunting methods. Because of their large reproductive capacity, Arctic foxes can maintain population levels under high hunting pressure. In some areas, up to 50% of the total population has been harvested on a sustainable basis (Nasimovic and Isakov 1985). However, this does not allow for hunting during population lows, as shown by the situation in Fennoscandia. The Arctic Fox has nevertheless survived high fur prices better than most other Arctic mammals. Hunting has declined considerably in the last decades, as a result of low fur prices and alternative sources of income. In the Yukon, for example, the total value of all fur production decreased from $1.3 million in 1988 to less than $300,000 in 1994.

The Arctic Fox occurs widely in captivity on fur farms and has been bred for fur production for over 70 years. The present captive population originates from a number of wild populations and has been bred for characteristics different from those found in the wild, including large size. Escaped "blue" foxes may already be a problem in Fennoscandia (and to a lesser extent in Iceland) due to gene swamping (Hersteinsson et al. 1989).

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions: The species is not included in the CITES Appendices.

In most of its range, the Arctic Fox is not protected. 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). It is therefore to be given full protection. On St. Paul Island the declining Arctic Fox population has currently no legal protection. In Norway (Svalbard), Greenland, Canada, Russia, and Alaska, trapping is limited to licensed trappers operating in a defined trapping season. The enforcement of these laws appears to be uniformly good. In Iceland, bounty hunting takes place over most of the country outside nature reserves.

For occurrence in protected areas, good information is available only for Sweden and Finland. For Iceland, Arctic Foxes could potentially appear in most protected areas.

An action plan has been developed for Arctic Foxes in Sweden (Löfgren and Angerbjörn 1998) and status reports have been published for Norway (Frafjord and Rofstad 1998) and Finland (Kaikusalo et al. 2000). In Sweden and Finland, a conservation project is under way (SEFALO). In 1993, Mednyi Island gained protected status as a Nature Reserve.

The Arctic Fox occurs widely in captivity on fur farms and has been bred for fur production for over 70 years. The present captive population originates from a number of wild populations and has been bred for characteristics different from those found in the wild, including large size. Escaped "blue" foxes may already be a problem in Fennoscandia (and to a lesser extent in Iceland) due to gene swamping (Hersteinsson et al. 1989).

The following gaps still exist in knowledge of the Arctic Fox:

1) Little is known concerning the impact of diseases introduced by humans on fox populations. Allied to this is our lack of knowledge of the epidemiology of Arctic rabies.

2) Considering the northward spread of the red fox in certain areas, studies are necessary to determine the effects of competition between red foxes and Arctic foxes on various population parameters and Arctic fox life-history patterns.

3) The non-recovery of the Fennoscandian population is a cause for concern, and requires specific attention, especially in terms of disease and genetics.

Bibliography [top]

Angerbjörn, A., Tannerfeldt, M. and Erlinge, S. 1999. Predator-prey relations: lemmings and Arctic foxes. Journal of Animal Ecology 68: 34-49.

Bailey, E. P. 1992. Red foxes, Vulpes vulpes, as biological control agents for introduced Arctic foxes, Alopex lagopus, on Alaskan Islands. Canadian Field-Naturalist 106: 200-205.

Baillie, J. and Groombridge, B. (comps and eds). 1996. 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.

Chesemore, D. L. 1975. Ecology of the Arctic fox (Alopex lagopus) in North America - a review. In: M. W. Fox (ed.), The wild canids. Their systematics, behavioral ecology and evolution, pp. 143-163. Van Nostrand Rheinhold Co., New York, USA.

Elmhagen, B., Tannerfeldt, M., Verucci, P. and Angerbjörn, A. 2000. The Arctic fox – an opportunistic specialist. Journal of Zoology (London) 251: 139-149.

Frafjord, K. and Rofstad, G. 1998. Fjellrev på Nordkalotten. Nordkalottrådets rapportserie Rapport 47: 1-39.

Hersteinsson, P. and Macdonald, D. W. 1992. Interspecific competition and the geographical distribution of red and Arctic foxes Vulpes vulpes and Alopex lagopus. Oikos 64: 505-515.

Hersteinsson, P. and Macdonald, D. W. 1996. Diet of Arctic foxes (Alopex lagopus) in Iceland. Journal of Zoology (London) 240: 457-474.

Hersteinsson, P., Angerbjörn, A., Frafjord, K. and Kaikusalo, A. 1989. The arctic fox in Fennoscandia and Iceland: management problems. Biological Conservation 49: 67-81.

Kaikusalo, A. and Angerbjörn, A. 1995. The Arctic fox population in Finnish Lapland during 30 years, 1964-93. Annales Zoologica Fennici 32: 69-77.

Kaikusalo, A., Mela, M. and Henttonen, H. 2000. Häviääkö naali Suomesta? Will the arctic fox become extinct in Finland? Suomen Riista 46: 57-65.

Löfgren, S. and Angerbjörn, A. 1998. Åtgärdsprogram för fjällräv. Naturvårdsverket, Stockholm, Sweden.

Macpherson, A. H. 1969. The dynamics of Canadian Arctic fox populations. Canadian Wildlife Service Report Series 8: 1-49.

Nasimovich, A. and Isakov, Y. (eds). 1985. Arctic fox, red fox and raccoon dog: distribution of resources, ecology, use and conservation. Janka, Moscow, USSR.

Samelius, G. and Lee, M. 1998. Arctic fox, Alopex lagopus, predation on lesser snow geese, Chen caerulescens, and their eggs. Canadian Field Naturalist 112: 700-701.

Sillero-Zubiri, C., Hoffmann, M. and Macdonald, D.W. (eds). 2004. Canids: Foxes, Wolves, Jackals and Dogs. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Canid Specialist Group, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.

Wozencraft, W. C. 2005. Order Carnivora. In: D. E. Wilson and D. M. Reeder (eds), Mammal Species of the World: A taxonomic and geographic reference. Third Edition, pp. 532-628. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC, USA.

Citation: Angerbjörn, A., Hersteinsson , P. & Tannerfeldt, M. 2008. Alopex lagopus. In: IUCN 2013. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. <>. Downloaded on 21 April 2014.
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