Discover the wildlife of the Arctic Circle

The uppermost reaches of our planet is home to some awe-inspiring animals, able to survive even the chilliest of winters…

Perched right at the very top of our planet, the Arctic Circle is among the most hostile environments on the globe. Windy, sub-zero and remote, the animals that live here need to be hardy and tough to endure the deep chill. Permanent sea ice surrounds the North Pole over the freezing Arctic Ocean, and the Arctic Circle encapsulates the northern tips of Russia, Scandinavia, Greenland, Canada and Alaska (USA) at 66º 33’ N. The tundra is full of low-lying shrubs, mosses and lichens grazed by reindeer and musk oxen and beneath the layer of vegetation and topsoil, the land is frozen up to 900 metres (3,000 feet) down, known as permafrost.

Animals native to the Arctic Circle all share common characteristics. They are well insulated with fur and blubber, and often sport excellent camouflage that changes with the seasons. The marine species that live on the shores and ice floes of the Arctic Ocean also have clever heat-saving adaptations and plenty of insulating blubber to preserve energy and warmth.

07 Aug 2013, Canada --- Canada, Nunavut Territory, Underwater view of Walrus nestling calf (Odobenus rosmarus) while swimming in Frozen Strait on Hudson Bay --- Image by © Paul Souders/Corbis
Walrus are streamlined and efficient swimmers. They use their impressive moustaches of sensitive whiskers to seek out prey on the ocean floor.

 

One animal to be found year-round in the Arctic is the seal. There are many species across the Circle, but the hooded, ringed, harp, ribbon, bearded and spotted seals are the most common. They use the sea ice and shorelines for breeding, moulting and pupping and take advantage of Arctic waters for fishing and hunting. These seals are also a key part of the diet of Arctic carnivores, none hungrier than the polar bear. This Arctic colossus can weigh in at up to 700 kilograms (1,500 pounds) and mainly preys on ringed and bearded seals. However, bears will scavenge for food and are able to smell a carcass up to 32 kilometres (20 miles) away.

In the icy grip of winter, temperatures on the tundra can average around -30-40 degrees Celsius (-22-40 degrees Fahrenheit). Animals that stay here to brave the cold also have to live in the dark, as the sun sets around September at the North Pole. Many birds, mammals and marine species migrate south to avoid the polar night, but some tough nuts stay to weather the storm.

The snowy owl is one such creature. This bird can hunt effectively thanks to its acute hearing and keen eyesight, allowing it to sense camouflaged prey hidden under snow. Snowy owls feed on lemmings, up to 1,600 per year. The arctic fox also doesn’t budge. Like the reindeer, its fur is hollow, which traps air and acts as a superb insulator. This allows the fox to survive temperatures down to -50 degrees Celsius (-58 degrees Fahrenheit).

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The snowy owl is one of the animals that can stay in the Arctic all year round

 

In the ocean, the only whales that overwinter in the Arctic are the beluga, narwhal and bowhead species. They don’t feed much during this time, relying on thick fatty blubber reserves to sustain them until the light returns and plankton blooms to nourish the food chain.

Back on land, animals that live close to the tree line of the Arctic Circle, such as the brown bear, hibernate over the winter and awaken when the sun rises in the spring. Once the sun is fully in the sky, the growing season lasts just 50-60 days, but 24-hour sunshine means that plants and animals can take full advantage of this fiesta of light.

Migrating birds such as snow geese, arctic terns and sandhill cranes make their long journeys back for the Arctic summer

All throughout the spring, migrating birds such as snow geese, arctic terns and sandhill cranes make their long journeys back for the Arctic summer. Mammals like musk oxen and reindeer also begin their migration north, having spent the colder months in sheltered subarctic forests. These herds also bring with them their predators, and packs of wolves arrive on the warming tundra, hot on the hooves of the roving reindeer. Spring is an essential avian breeding season and sees the plains and rocky cliffs become a flurry of feathers and a riot of colourful plumage as huge bird populations arrive to mate. In the oceans, many more migrants make their way north for some delicious frozen dinners. The humpback whale travels from tropical breeding grounds to feed on rich stocks of plankton and fish.

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Packs of wolves follow reindeer and other large animals into the Arctic tundra as they migrate north during the spring

 

With the sun high in the sky, summer temperatures rarely go above 3-12 degrees Celsius (37–57 degrees Fahrenheit), but this is enough to melt snow, ice and a thin layer of permafrost. This transforms the landscape into a swampy marshland, providing much-needed water for plants to thrive. Insect larva that has lain dormant all winter hatches out in response to the boost in temperature and the tundra comes alive. Over 500 species of wildflowers bloom and attract insects and grazers to join the feast. The promise of food also brings large and small birds including waders, ducks and geese to the inland feeding frenzy.

As autumn begins to set in, most of the fair-weather animals take this as their exit cue. The reindeer begin their rut in September, where males become aggressive and protective of their females. The herd then begin their long trek south to warmer climes. By November, winter is in full swing and only the toughest and hardiest species remain. The sea ice will have advanced once more and the walrus population will have moved with it. For the tundra-dwelling animals, food is scarce once more and darkness sets in for another long polar night.

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Click to enlarge the image and explore more wildlife from the Arctic Circle

 

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