FOXES ARE ICELAND'S ONLY NATIVE TERRESTRIAL MAMMALS
I will be traveling to Iceland and am interested in what wildlife I
might see. How many native mammals, reptiles and amphibians live on
the island? What are the chances of my being able to see them?
The answer to the first question is simple: Iceland has only one native
species. No reptile or amphibian has ever set foot or scale on the island.
Several mammals have become permanent residents, but other than the
Arctic fox all were imported by humans. If you get out to areas where
the foxes live, the chances of seeing them are good. Four domestic animals
are common, a few other introductions have become established in the
wild and marine mammals occupy the surrounding seawaters. But the Arctic
fox is the only terrestrial vertebrate that was living on the island
when the Norwegians claimed it more than 1,200 years ago.
centuries, Nordic settlers transported a variety of farm animals to
what is now an independent republic about the size of Kentucky. Sheep,
the mainstay among domestic livestock, were an easy choice from the
beginning because they provide food as well as wool for clothing. The
Icelandic sheepdog and horse have also fared well because of their practical
value. Cattle are present but not as widespread as the other three.
All Icelandic farm animals have undergone natural selection, the survivors
being those best able to survive in a relatively cold year-round climate.
Domestic cats, which seem to find their way to any location where people
can attend them, are abundant in the capital city, Reykjavik.
land mammals, an occasional polar bear on a drifting iceberg will wander
over from Greenland, which at its closest is about 200 miles as the
raven (which lives in Iceland) flies. But Icelanders are not especially
welcoming to polar bears, which will eat people, so even a transient
is unlikely to last for very long. Wild reindeer herds well-adapted
to the harsh weather conditions live in some areas, although these were
introduced with the intent of domesticating them. Rabbits and mink have
also been imported and are now wild in some areas. Rats are an invasive
species, as they are wherever humans venture on Earth.
mammals are diverse and abundant along Icelands shores and surrounding
seas. Walruses show up periodically and had natural populations until
early settlers drove them to extinction locally. Several species of
seals are present, some being year-round residents and others seasonal
visitors. The ocean waters are visited by more than a dozen kinds of
whales each year.
had a national mammal, the obvious choice would be the Arctic fox, the
only land mammal that is a natural resident. All others dwell in the
sea or arrived via boat. These engaging little creatures occur across
northern land masses around the world. In most areas their fur turns
brown in summer and white in winter, but according to Walkers
Mammals of the World, by Ronald M. Nowak, the most authoritative
book of its kind, a small number of Arctic foxes are the blue color
phase. These become pale bluish-gray in winter and dark bluish-gray
in summer. The coat color is rare elsewhere (for example, only 1 percent
of Arctic foxes in Canada), but in Iceland the blue phase is common.
Arctic foxes have the best insulative fur of any mammal
(and) make the most extensive (overland) movements of any terrestrial
mammal. They are known to travel hundreds of miles across sea
ice and away from land. Their occupation of Iceland probably occurred
when foxes made their way across the frozen wasteland that connected
Canada, Greenland and Iceland more than 10,000 years ago during the
last major ice age.
single native land vertebrate lives in Iceland but there is plenty of
wildlife to see. And if you are lucky you may get to see a blue fox.
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