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Arctic Wildlife

The Arctic is home to wild adventures, unique culture and cuisine, and, of course, some unforgettable animals! Here, we have your guide to some of the incredible creatures travellers will have the chance to spot on a trip to the Arctic. 

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Animals of the Arctic

Over 5,500 animals live in the Arctic, surviving with thick coats of fur or blubber that have evolved over time to keep them safe and warm in harsh conditions. Many of these animals are active throughout the year, having adapted to survive Arctic winters without hibernation - only pregnant polar bears, for example, hibernate during colder months. Since the Arctic is an expansive region, a wide range of animals call it home!

Polar bears

Polar bears - some of the most famous Arctic inhabitants - can be found in Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, and Norway's Svalbard Archipelago. Travellers set on catching a glimpse of these majestic white bears should travel in the summer when some Arctic ice has melted and the bears will spend more time on shore. Polar bears in the wild are an incredible sight to behold, but make sure you always listen to your guide’s advice and practise reasonable safety precautions when you’re anywhere near them.

Depending on when you visit, the likelihood of seeing polar bears can be very high, so plan accordingly. Polar bears eat seals (bearded and ringed) almost exclusively, but have been known to also eat walrus, whale, birds' eggs, and, very occasionally, vegetation. Female polar bears can grow to be up to 2.4 metres (7.9 feet) on their hind legs and weigh up to 250 kilograms (551 pounds), while males can reach up to 3 metres (9.8 feet) on their hind legs and 450 kilograms (992 pounds). 
Learn when and where to see polar bears.
  • Arctic fox

    In the winter, the arctic fox's grey fur turns pure white, allowing them to seamlessly blend in with the snow around them. The arctic fox is the only mammal native to Iceland, and visitors can even explore the Arctic Fox Centre in Sudavik, home to two live arctic foxes rescued as pups in 2015. Iceland isn't the only place travellers can find arctic foxes, though; these animals live across the entirety of the Arctic Tundra. During winter, arctic foxes can be found following polar bears for their leftovers. The best time to see arctic foxes is during a bright Arctic night in the summer - while they often stay in their dens during the day, at night they're much more active and easy to spot. 
     
  • Arctic wolf

    These predators of the Arctic are smaller than grey wolves, and retain body heat with their smaller ears and shorter muzzles. Adults will grow to be just under two metres long with their tails and weigh between 45 and 70 kilograms (99 and 154 pounds). Thanks to their isolated habitats, arctic wolves are the only sub-species of wolf whose population isn't currently threatened. Hunting in packs, arctic wolves live on muskox, arctic hares, and caribou. Arctic wolves live in North America and Greenland, and the best time to see them is dawn, when they'll be out for the hunt .

     
  • Reindeer

    There are 15 subspecies of reindeer, and most of them live above the treeline (the point after which trees cannot grow) in the Arctic. Reindeer are famously migratory - the reindeer migration is the biggest migration among terrestrial animals (even including the great migration in Africa!), moving as much as 5,000 kilometres (3,106 miles) per year. Travellers will find reindeer on high ground in Norway, Alaska, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, and Russia, and travellers heading to Norway should try to time their visit with the months of January to February to witness the migration for themselves. 
  • Muskox

    Visitors looking to see this impressive animal should head to the north of Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and Russia, but a small population of muskox also reside in Scandinavia. They are one of the few large mammals able to live in the Arctic year-round! While travellers should be able to see muskox year-round, calves are born in late April or May. However, note that their young are not always easy to spot! Wolves prey on the calves, and to protect the young, muskox stand in a defensive circle and use their large horns to scare off predators. 

     
  • Arctic hare

    Found in the harsh North American tundra, arctic hares survive the winter by feeding on woody plants and lichens and digging up shelters where they huddle together, rather than hibernating. Baby hares are born brown, but turn white after 4 weeks. Travellers interested in seeing those babies should visit in spring or early summer!
  • Canada lynx

    While lynxes - medium cats with beautiful coats of fur and unusually large paws which act as snowshoes - are revered animals, they're also extremely difficult to spot. Found in Alaska and Canada, Canada lynxes avoid people, and travellers shouldn't expect to see one on their travels. That being said, their mating period takes place in March and April, and there may be more lynxes around during this time. 

Walrus

These imposing creatures can grow up to weight more than 2,000 kilograms! (4,409 pounds) You'll often find them relaxing on sunny beaches, so if walruses are what you're after, time your visit with the midnight sun. While the massive Pacific walrus lives in Alaska and the east of Russia, travellers can find smaller species in Svalbard, Greenland, and certain regions of northern Canada. Known for their long tusks, which are actually canine teeth that can grow up to three feet long, walruses are generally sociable but can become aggressive during mating season from December through March. 
 
  • Harp seal

    You'll find harp seals - and their adorable pups - breeding in Newfoundland (located in Canada), Greenland, and the White Sea in late February and early March. Unfortunately, harp seals are widely hunted for their fur, and hunters also flock to these breeding grounds in order to hunt. Other than during the mating season, harp seals spend very little time on land, preferring to swim in the North Atlantic and arctic oceans. 

     
  • Bearded seal

    These whiskered seals are the largest species of seal to live in the Arctic - males can weigh up to 450 kilograms (992 pounds), while females are even larger! While they tend to be solitary animals, travellers will find them giving birth to their pups on ice floes on the Arctic Ocean in April or May.
     
  • Ringed seal

    The most common and most widely-distributed seal in the Arctic, travellers will find ringed seals everywhere throughout the Northern Hemisphere's arctic oceans. The only time these solitary animals come together is to breed, when they gather on sea ice and become extremely territorial about their spots. 

Narhwal

These mysterious and strange creatures live only in the coldest waters, extremely up north where the arctic ice meets the sea. Often called "the unicorn of the sea," you'll have the best chance of seeing narwhals in the summer, in northern Canada and Thule, in Greenland’s north. However, they're also found year-round in the freezing waters of Svalbard and Russia
  • Beluga whale

    One of the smallest species of whale, belugas are known as "sea canaries" for the way they communicate with each other through distinct clicks, chirps, and whistles. Extremely social animals, beluga whales are found in large groups in the Arctic waters year-round. However, the best place to see these animals is the north and east of Canada, mainly in Churchill, Manitoba and Tadoussac, Quebec
  • Bowhead whale

    The second largest whale in the world (second only to the blue whale, of course!) bowhead whales are believed to be the longest-living animals on earth, with a lifespan of up to 200 years! Bowhead whales spend their entire life in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, especially in the seas near Alaska. 
  • Humpback whale

    While humpback whales don't live in the Arctic year-long, they'll spend the summer months in the Arctic Ocean. Find these magnificent animals in the seas surrounding Iceland, Canada, and many other destinations - humpback whales, after all, migrate up to 8,000 kilometres (4,970 miles) every year!
     

Arctic animals facts

  • How do animals survive in the Arctic?

    Arctic animals use many different strategies to survive the cold! Arctic hares, for example, huddle together in large groups to preserve body heat. Others, such as muskox, have thick hair which surrounds and protects their body. Polar bears, known for their great adaptability to freezing climates, combine thick fur with a layer of blubber and an oily coating which keeps moisture out and heat in.
  • What do Arctic animals eat?

    Many arctic herbivores have adapted to be able to eat lichen, a moss which grows on plants in the tundra. Carnivores, however, have a much wider diet, ranging from rodents such as lemmings, birds, and even caribou. When food sources are more scarce, carnivorous animals will also eat berries and eggs. 
  • How many animal species live in the Arctic?

    Over 5,500 species of animals live in the Arctic.
  • Are there any endangered species in the Arctic tundra?

    Due to hunting, climate change, and other habitat distruptions, there are several endangered species living in the Arctic Tundra. This includes polar bears, narwhals, and beluga whales. 

Guidelines to watching Arctic wildlife

Whenever you go on a wildlife excursion, there are a few helpful guidelines you should be following in order to ensure your experience is safe and enjoyable - for you and the animals!
 

  1. Maintain a safe distance.  Travellers observing Arctic animals in their natural habitat should maintain a distance great enough that the animal doesn't realise it's being watched in the first place. There have unfortunately been incidents in the past regarding humans and Arctic predators such as polar bears, so these creatures should be approached with great caution. 
  2. Do not disturb. Just like humans, animals can develop anxiety when their day to day lives and routines are disturbed. If an animal shows signs of this, such as changing their position from laying to sitting, turning their head away, or walking away, they're likely tired of the presence of humans and should be left alone.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​
  3. Be aware of your surroundings. The Arctic is an incredibly beautiful area, filled with pristine nature - visiting humans should do everything in their power to keep it that way. Remember the old adage: take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.  

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