Norwegian Scientists Stunned By Arctic Fox’s Record-Breaking Journey

Image: Dgwildlife//Getty Images

When researchers at the Norwegian Polar Institute started monitoring a young Arctic fox in July 2017, they certainly didn’t expect her to set a new record. Remarkably, the animal – also called a blue or coastal fox – covered more than 2,000 miles in just 76 days, making her journey the fastest ever reported of her species.

The team of researchers on the island of Spitsbergen, Norway, placed a tracker on the fox to study her movement patterns in the wild. This GPS device would record the animal’s location and send it back to the institute.

The coastal fox left Spitsbergen – an island that makes up part of the Svalbard archipelago – in March 2018 and reached Ellesmere Island, Canada, in June, having covered a staggering 2,178 miles in 76 days. That’s about as far as walking from New York to Salt Lake City. The fox also maintained a record-breaking mean speed of about 28.4 miles per day.

The remarkable journey begins

According to a paper published by the institute in the Polar Research journal, the vixen, not even a year old and weighing just over 4 pounds, departed Spitsbergen on March 26, 2018, when she “met ice-covered sea for the first time [and headed] northeast on the sea ice.”

Traveling over the frozen water, the Arctic fox then arrived in Greenland on April 16, 2018, having traversed around 939 miles in roughly three weeks. But the animal’s trek didn’t end there, as she continued to move further north.

“[The Arctic fox] finally reached Ellesmere Island, Canada [on June 10, 2018], 76 days after leaving Spitsbergen,” the researchers explained. “Here, she stayed in a limited area around the Fosheim Peninsula until the satellite transmitter stopped transmitting on February 6, 2019.” At this point, the fox had traveled 2,178 miles.

In July 2019 one of the Institute’s researchers, Eva Fuglei, told The Guardian that the team were delighted by the results. “We [at] first did not believe it was true,” she said.

The scientists initially thought that the fox’s GPS must have fallen off and somehow made it aboard a ship. However, Fuglei pointed out, “There are no boats that go so far up in the ice. So we just had to keep up with what the fox did.”

Image: Dgwildlife/Getty Images

The fox reached impressive speeds

The experts explained in their paper that the fox’s speed fluctuated greatly along her trip. She averaged out at around 30 miles per day, but at her fastest, she moved almost 100 miles in 24 hours.

The report reads, “The female traveled most quickly while crossing the ice sheet in northwestern Greenland. When traveling on sea ice, her average movement rate was 21 miles per day, suggesting that sea ice was used predominantly as a platform for dispersal.”

In July 2019 biologist Jeff Corwin spoke to CBS News about the fox’s extraordinary journey. He said, “I think it’s wonderful, [and] I think it’s fascinating, but I’m not all that surprised. When animals need to go [on the move], [it’s] largely because they’re seeking places to have families, or they’re looking for resources like food or changes in seasonality. They will go on the move, and they will migrate.”

The animal could also have been in pursuit of food. In the colder months, Arctic foxes regularly traipse after bigger carnivores, such as polar bears, to feed on their scraps. By spring and summertime, though, a number of avian and marine species enter their birthing seasons, so the vixen could have been hunting for eggs or placentas.

The effects of climate change

The Arctic fox’s expedition has led a number of experts to consider how melting sea ice may affect similar journeys in the future. Ola Elvestuen, the Norwegian Climate and Environment Minister, is quoted by The Guardian as saying, “We must cut emissions quickly to prevent the sea ice from disappearing all summer.”

The sea ice is crucial for Arctic foxes, because it allows them to travel to new regions in order to locate food and interact with other populations. One of the scientists who was monitoring the fox, Arnaud Tarroux, states that “this kind of movement will not be possible in the future if the sea ice disappears.”

Climate change is affecting Arctic foxes in other ways, too. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, lemmings – a key food source – are reducing in numbers. Global warming is also forcing Arctic foxes to compete for resources with Red foxes, which are being forced north by the rising temperatures.

One thing is for sure: this Arctic fox’s incredible journey won’t be forgotten any time soon. After all, the young vixen beat the former record-holder’s time by a considerable margin. The previous journey, which was reported in 2012, was taken by a male Arctic fox that traveled 70 miles in a single day.