This seasonal shift in coat color helps them blend in with their environment, making them very successful hunters. The arctic fox is so well matched to its home that there are even slight variations in coloration within the species, depending on what part of the landscape they live in. Arctic foxes found around the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have more of a blue-gray appearance, which helps them blend in with the bare rocks and cliffs along the shore, while foxes in the grassy summer tundra are more brow and gold.
In addition to changing coats, these foxes have many other incredible characteristics. Their most unique feature is their fur-covered toe pads. The fur on their toes helps them grip the Arctic ice, and insulates their feet so they don’t lose as much heat when hunting out on the ice and snow. They are the only species in the canid family (which includes dogs, wolves, and other foxes) with this special trait. They also have short noses, ears, and legs. This combination gives the arctic fox a very compact body that helps them stay warm. They take full advantage of this while sleeping, curling into a small ball and tucking their noses and feet underneath the thickest parts of their fur.
The dens can be very complex, with dozens of entrances and an underground network of tunnels and nests that can cover several football fields in total area. It's like a whole fox city underground! Arctic foxes tend to have small home ranges, staying close to these dens to hunt and defend their territory. By staying close to home, they are able to become familiar with all of the nooks and crannies of their landscape where potential prey might hide. This small range also keeps them close to the protection of the den, where they hide their young and escape from larger predators like wolves and golden eagles.
Arctic foxes form monogamous pairs during the breeding season, meaning that they will mate with only one individual each year. This pair stays together until the babies (called “kits”) are able to find food for themselves. It typically takes about 4-5 months for the kits to become independent. A mother fox averages 11 kits at a time, which is the largest average litter size of any carnivorous mammal. Luckily for her, the male also helps to protect and provide food for the kits. The arctic fox is primarily a predator, using its strong sense of smell and hearing to find small rodents hidden under the ground and snow. Like most Arctic animals though, they will eat many other food sources if they can find them. Arctic foxes will scavenge the kills of other predators, and eat berries, seaweed, ground nesting bird eggs, and fish. These small but strong hunters have even been seen taking young seals.
As climate change causes the Arctic to warm, it is opening up the arctic fox to an unfortunate threat from a close relative – the red fox. With less snow and warmer temperatures, red foxes are increasingly able to survive in the same landscapes as the arctic fox. Red foxes are larger and more aggressive than arctic foxes, and tend to outcompete the smaller animals for food and resources. They also take over arctic fox dens, killing kits and even adult foxes in the process. But there is still hope to protect the future of this unique Arctic species. Visit our Take Action page to learn more about what you can do to safeguard the Arctic Refuge.