by Whit Gibbons

January 7, 2018

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Over the 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.

Among wild 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.

Marine mammals are diverse and abundant along Iceland’s 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.

If Iceland 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 “Walker’s 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.

Only a 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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