All About the Arctic Fox: Ecosystem Engineers

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 11th November 2023

NameArctic foxDietCarnivorous
Scientific nameVulpes lagopusWeight1.4 to 9.4 kilograms (3 to 20.7 pounds)
PronunciationArk-tik faksLength41 to 68 centimeters (16 to 27 inches)
ClassificationMammalia, Carnivora, & CanidaeLocationCircumpolar distribution

The Arctic Fox

arctic fox
The Arctic fox, also known as the white fox, polar fox, or snow fox, is a small fox native to the Arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere | BDphoto via Getty Images

Close your eyes and imagine the pristine realms of the Arctic.

Far away, you see a creature exploring the surroundings; it’s almost unnoticeable as it blends perfectly with the snow. 

It’s the Arctic fox – the elusive, resilient, and highly adaptable inhabitant of the Arctic tundra.

Also known as snow foxes, Arctic foxes are thought to descend from a prehistoric Arctic fox that roamed through our planet’s harsh environments 5 million years ago.

Gage Beasley's In-Demand Plush Toys
Gage Beasley’s In-Demand Plush Toys

As time passed, they developed a myriad of resourceful and inventive adaptations that make living in such extreme conditions a piece of cake! 

Starting from their furred feet and ending with their short, rounded ears, almost everything is an adaptation that helps them endure low temperatures.

Are you curious enough already? Waste no time! Let’s unravel the uniqueness of the Arctic foxes and learn why they are so special!

Taxonomy and Classification

arctic fox
The beautiful Arctic fox | Michel VIARD via Getty Images

The Arctic fox is commonly known as the polar fox or snow fox. Scientifically, it is called Vulpes lagopus

This mammal is part of the Vulpes genus of true foxes, which, in turn, is classified under the Canidae family alongside other canid groups.

Besides the Arctic fox, the Vulpes genus has 11 other fox species, which are the closest relatives of the snow fox. 

More distant relatives are raccoon dogs and bat-eared foxes, followed by wolves, coyotes, dogs, golden jackals, African wild dogs, and others.

Paleontological expeditions revealed that Arctic foxes have been around for roughly 5 million years, except that scientists classify their ancestral form under a different species – Vulpes qiuzhudingi

Its fossils were discovered in Tibet, in the Zanda Basin and Kunlun Mountains.

The Vulpes lagopus species has four recognized subspecies, grouped depending on their distribution:

  • V. l. beringensis – Bering Islands Arctic fox
  • V. l. fuliginosus – Iceland Arctic fox
  • V. l. foragoapusis – Greenland Arctic fox
  • V. l. pribilofensis – Pribilof Islands Arctic fox
Gage Beasley's Arctic Fox Plush
Gage Beasley’s Arctic Fox Plush

Physical Characteristics

arctic fox
An Arctic fox’s fur | Pierre Cornay Photography via Getty Images

Arctic fox coats are dense and multilayered, which allows them to survive in harsh weather. 

During the summer, Arctic foxes have thinner, shorter fur, whereas in the winter they acquire a thick, well-insulating coat.

Contrary to popular belief, not all Arctic foxes are white; some can have a blue coat, although they’re quite uncommon.

The white foxes are usually fully white in the winter and become brown on top and light gray on the underside in the summer.

This coloration serves as camouflage.

Blue Arctic foxes are bluish-gray or dark brown when it’s warm and steely blue-gray when temperatures drop.

Arctic foxes have a compact body build and short legs.

The muzzle is short, the ears are small and rounded, and the paw pads are furred.

arctic fox
The Arctic fox and its short legs and compact body | DmitryND via Getty Images

Most male Arctic foxes are slightly larger than females, measuring between 46 and 68 centimeters (18–27 inches), although the average is 55 centimeters (21.7 inches). 

Females are 41–55 centimeters (16–21.7 inches) long. In some populations, however, males and females have the same size. 

Their tails are quite long, adding 30 centimeters (11.8 inches) to their body length.

Males weigh between 3.2 and 9.4 kilograms (7–20.7 pounds), whereas females are much lighter, weighing only 1.4–3.2 kilograms (3–7 pounds). 

Their shoulder height is 25–30 centimeters (9.8–11.8 inches) on average.

Habitat and Distribution

Arctic foxes live in boreal forests, Arctic tundra habitats, and pack ice. They prefer elevations up to 3,000 meters (feet). 

The white morph is found primarily inland because its coat allows for excellent camouflage, whereas the blue morph lives closer to the shores and hides between rocks and cliffs.

With a circumpolar distribution, Arctic foxes are found in the following locations:

  • Greenland
  • Iceland
  • Svalbard
  • Fennoscandia
  • Northern Russia
  • Alaska
  • Islands in the Bering Sea
  • Canada
  • The Aleutian Islands
  • The Kenai Peninsula

Behavior and Social Structure

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Arctic fox in broad daylight | Wirestock via Getty Images

Arctic foxes can be active any time of the day.

Despite the harsh weather they must endure, these foxes do not hibernate. 

Instead, they build dens and hide there if the wind becomes too strong. 

Their dens are highly complex and can sometimes cover areas of up to 1,000 sq m (10,764 sq ft). 

They last for decades and pass down to new fox generations.

To remain warm, Arctic foxes lay in a curled-up position with their heads hidden under the furry tails, thus protecting the areas that aren’t as well insulated.

During the winter, Arctic foxes engage in a migratory behavior called commuting trips, during which they leave for roughly three days to look for food but do not go outside their home range. 

arctic fox
Where’s the prey? | Dmitry Deshevykh via Getty Images

This can occur up to three times a month.

Other Arctic foxes are nomads, and only a few leave their home range only to return afterward (a pattern called loop migration). 

Some populations, like those in Alaska, migrate seasonally; when the temperatures drop, they travel toward the sea because food sources are abundant there.

Snow foxes usually live and travel in groups of one male, one female, and their kits. 

Sometimes there’s another female, which is a kit born the previous year.

Her role is to help care for the other kits.

Arctic foxes rely on various sounds, like yowls or high-pitched sounds, and territorial markings to communicate with each other.

Diet and Feeding

arctic fox
An Arctic fox (summer morph) with salmon | Hillebrand Steve via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Arctic foxes are primarily carnivorous.

They eat small animals like lemmings, hares, birds (and their eggs), fish, and voles. 

If the opportunity arises, they’ll scavenge carcasses left behind by other predators.

Depending on where they live, snow foxes show preferences toward particular prey. 

For example, those living close to the shore feed primarily on birds, while other populations hunt lemmings, sometimes killing dozens daily. 

During the winter, Arctic foxes may sometimes steal and feed on ringed seal babies.

If food is scarce, they may eat seaweed, berries, and even their own feces.

Snow foxes rely on their smell and hearing to find prey. 

Although they aren’t as sensitive to sounds as other canids, they can hear lemmings that are 10.2–12.7 centimeters (4–5 inches) under the snow.

arctic fox
Polar fox eating on Svalbard Island | ValerieVS via Getty Images

If they look for a carcass to scavenge, Arctic foxes will make use of their smell, as they can smell them from as far as 40 kilometers (25 miles)! 

Frozen lemmings hidden up to 77 centimeters (30 inches) under the snow aren’t outside their smell’s reach, either!

As mentioned, Arctic foxes may engage in migratory behaviors if food becomes scarce during the winter. 

Nevertheless, they still have some incredible adaptations that ensure their survival when prey is not sufficient.

They’ve learned to store extra food in their dens and put on body fat before the winter starts. 

Scientists suggest that most of this fat and energy storage comes from eating snow goose eggs. 

That’s why the populations living close to goose colonies do not typically migrate during the winter.

Reproduction and Life Cycle

arctic fox
Mother Arctic Fox (Vulpes lagopus) with a cub, Iceland | Dgwildlife via Getty Images

Like other mammals, Arctic foxes are viviparous, meaning they reproduce by giving birth. 

Their breeding season begins in February and lasts until June, although the actual mating occurs (most often) in April or May.

Before that, they start looking for a suitable den where the mother can give birth and raise the babies.

The more hidden and protected it is from predators, the better.

Once fertilization occurs, mothers undergo a gestation period of 51–57 days, during which they give birth to as many as 25 kits. 

However, the average litter size is 5–8. If the lemming population is abundant, the litter size may be larger.

Once the pups are born, both parents remain in the den to care for their young. 

arctic fox
Pups of Arctic fox with summer morph | Boylan Mike via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The father brings food, guards the den, and is sometimes aided by other foxes in the family. 

This occurs only if food is enough for all.

If there isn’t much prey, Arctic foxes will scatter around.

The pups remain in the den for roughly 3–4 weeks.

They are fully weaned 6–9 weeks after birth. 

At ten months of age, Arctic foxes become sexually mature.

Unfortunately, many pups die before reaching sexual maturity. 

And even if they survive, snow foxes live only 3–6 years in the wild.

Ecological Role and Interactions

arctic fox
The Arctic fox in the wild | karinegenest via Getty Images

Arctic foxes are called ecosystem engineers.

Their environments are low in nutrients and productivity, so their denning systems have a major impact on vegetation growth and soil nutrient dynamics. 

In turn, this affects other wild populations via non-trophic interactions.

In addition, since snow foxes also feed on feces and scavenge carcasses, they keep their habitats clean and prevent disease and parasite spread. 

They also help control the population of rodents and birds, as long as they’re not affecting them negatively, as happened on the Aleutian Islands, where Arctic foxes are responsible for a reduction of local bird populations.

Unfortunately for them, but luckily for their predators, these furry foxes are hunted and preyed upon by polar bears, wolves, red foxes, golden eagles, and others, depending on their distribution.

Conservation Status and Threats

arctic fox
Hello, Arctic foxes! | Dmitry Deshevykh via Getty Images

Arctic foxes were last assessed by the IUCN Red List in 2014 as Least Concern. 

Although their population numbers fluctuated over the years, specialists could not find any reasons to believe their population was declining. 

There are likely several hundred thousand mature individuals left in the wild.

Nonetheless, not all Arctic foxes are safe and sound.

For example, those on the Scandinavian mainland are on the brink of extinction, as only 200 individuals are left in the region. 

Although protected against hunting and persecution, their numbers are still dropping. 

Other populations aren’t legally protected against uncontrolled trapping, especially those with slate-blue coloration. 

Apart from the Scandinavian Arctic foxes, there’s one more population on the brink of extinction – the Arctic foxes living on Medny Island, Russia. 

Only 90 individuals are left today, and their population has suffered a reduction of more than 80% over the last 50 years, primarily due to mange, a skin disease caused by parasitic mites.

The outbreak occurred in the 1970s.

Another aspect that is probably a risk to their population is gene swamping attributed to foxes that have escaped from captivity.

Furthermore, climatic change is thought to negatively impact their population, too, because they lose their natural camouflage. 

Although snow foxes may evolve to change their coat colors, this won’t happen overnight.

Unfortunately, the Arctic fox isn’t protected in most parts of the world, which is why further conservation efforts are required. 

Additionally, scientists have yet to discover how diseases, genetics, and red fox competition affect their populations.

Unique Adaptations and Survival Strategies

arctic fox
Flaunting your thick fur, Arctic fox? | Rimante_Hegland via Getty Images

Check out some unique adaptations Arctic foxes developed to survive in their habitats:

  • Thick, insulating fur. Arctic foxes have evolved to grow extremely thick fur that helps them survive the harsh weather. If it weren’t for their coat, they wouldn’t last too long in the wild! Additionally, they’ve learned to sleep in a curled-up position that protects the vulnerable areas from cold.
  • Low surface area to volume ratio. This means that their compact body shape, small, thick ears, and short legs help preserve heat in the body.
  • Excellent sense of smell. As mentioned, Arctic foxes can smell carcasses 40 kilometers (25 miles) away and frozen lemmings hidden 77 centimeters (30 inches) deep in snow!
  • The nose mechanism. If you think Arctic foxes are struggling only during the winter, we’re here to tell you otherwise! When they exercise or hunt in the summer, they can overheat. So, they take advantage of a mechanism in their nose that keeps their brains cool in the summer!
  • Countercurrent heat exchange. Like birds, Arctic foxes can stand with their legs on freezing grounds without losing mobility because they rely on countercurrent heat exchange allowed by selectively vasoconstricting blood vessels that minimize heat loss.

Cultural Significance and Human Interactions

arctic fox
A solitary white Arctic fox standing in the white snow | Cheryl Ramalho via Getty Images

Arctic foxes first appeared in scientific works in the 18th century when Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, taxonomist, and zoologist, described the species, which back then was called Canis lagopus.

The description was based on a specimen found in Lapland, Sweden.

He named the species lagopus as a reference to its haired feet. Over the years, the species was moved to the Vulpes genus.

Since then, these canids have been associated with resilience, survival, perseverance, and intelligence. 

A Finnish legend says that the northern lights were produced by an Arctic fox running to the north. 

When its fur touched the mountains, it generated sparkles that created the northern lights. 

Furthermore, a Canadian legend says that Arctic foxes saved people from hunger by sharing caribou with them.

Arctic foxes are extensively farmed for their fur. While this positively impacts a country’s economy, it damages the fox population and encourages inhumane breeding in uncomfortable conditions. 

If humans approach them in the wild, Arctic foxes will likely hide and wait for them to leave. 

They’re quite fearful in this regard, which is one of the reasons they’re unsuitable for farm breeding. 

Another reason is that they are predators with a hunting routine and require an open environment to explore and enjoy.

Future Prospects and Research

arctic fox
Understanding the Arctic fox | Vladimir Glushkov via Getty Images

Many scientists are now concerned with the Arctic fox population numbers and focus their studies on understanding what threats these canids face. 

For example, they want to understand how gene swamping can affect their species in the long term. Another important aspect is their competition with red foxes.

Besides this, scientists are investigating how climate change affects Arctic foxes’ lifestyle, behavior, and survival. 

They’re also investigating whether they can adapt to new environments by changing coat colors and developing other survival techniques.

Many organizations focus on conservation efforts for wild populations. Others focus their energy on ending the Arctic fox fur trade.


Besides being proof of nature’s creativity, Arctic foxes amaze us with their ecological roles, too! 

Furthermore, their feeding strategies, social structures, burrowing skills, and camouflaging abilities are nothing but fascinating!

Although their global population isn’t considered endangered at the moment, some local populations are on the brink of extinction. 

Many Arctic foxes are trapped and bred in captivity for fur.

Others are affected by diseases, climate change, and increasing red fox numbers.

Considering their uniqueness and how important they are to the Arctic ecosystem, it is of the essence to contribute to conservation efforts by spreading awareness, engaging in responsible tourism, and discouraging the fur trade. 

Let’s save the Arctic foxes before their populations suffer a significant reduction!


Can you touch an Arctic fox?

If you ever spot an Arctic fox, do not approach, feed, or touch it, especially if it is close to human establishments.

Although snow foxes are typically fearful of humans, those living near settlements can lose their natural fear if approached or fed.

How warm is the fur of Arctic foxes?

The fur of Arctic foxes, alongside other adaptations, maintains a body temperature of approximately 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit).

What is the highest temperature an Arctic fox can survive?

Arctic foxes can survive temperatures of up to -50 degrees Celsius (-58 degrees Fahrenheit).


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