Alberta, Canada
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Arctic Fox
Alopex lagopus
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General Description

By Gustave J. Yaki

The Arctic or White Fox is a small, terrier-sized species that occupies all of the tundra regions of the northern hemisphere. As well as the mainland, it also occurs on all remote, off-shore, arctic islands, having crossed to them on the ice or on drifting ice-pans. It has been seen wandering within two degrees of the north pole.

In Canada, besides the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, Arctic Foxes also extends south to the treeline across northern Saskatchewan, Manitoba, around the shores of Hudson and James Bays and through the Ungava region of Quebec to coastal Labrador. Occasionally they get carried on drifting ice-floes to northern Newfoundland, Anticosti Island and Cape Breton.

This species is not part of Alberta's normal fauna. They rarely occur -- and only in the extreme northeastern corner of this province in the vicinity of Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca. Perhaps they have followed the migrating Barren-ground Caribou into the boreal forest. Some may wander here in years when the lemming population collapses.

As is the case with many other creatures living in arctic regions, the Arctic Fox has short legs, rounded head, short ears and a blunt nose, thus reducing the overall surface area exposed to the cold. The long bushy tail does double duty, also serving as a protective covering when sleeping. The soles of its feet are furred.

In summer, their coat colour is brownish. In winter, most become pure white except for their black nose and yellow eyes. Individuals in coastal regions develop a bluish-coloured coat, varying from pearl grey to almost blue black, to be better camouflaged amongst the boulders along shorelines.

The long, thick winter coat make these animals seem much larger than they actually are. While the average total body length is 886 mm (35 in), of which their tail measures 317 mm (12.5 in), adult males only weigh 3.5 kg (7.7 lb). Females are noticeably smaller, weighing on average only 2.9 kg (6.4 lb).

Over most of its range the Arctic Fox subsists mainly on lemmings. They are able to detect these in their nests below the snow with their keen sense of smell. They can also locate carrion from great distances. Following Polar Bears and Gray Wolves allows them to garner the remains of seals or caribou. In winter, they will pursue Arctic Hare and ptarmigan. Summer is the season of greatest abundance. Not only do they feed on Arctic Ground Squirrels, the eggs and young of ground-nesting birds and flightless ducks and geese, they also provide for their own future winter needs by stock-piling surpluses on the permafrost. They are wise enough to avoid the nests of Snowy Owls and Peregrine Falcons. The coastal foxes eat mulluscs, crabs, sea-urchins and fish stranded in tide-pools. They become quite adept at climbing cliffs to get at nesting seabirds and their eggs.

In winter, Arctic Foxes seek shelter by tunneling into a snow bank. In summer, they dig dens in the frost-free, south-facing slopes of eskers or river banks. Often there are over a dozen entrances and exits and connecting tunnels. The same dens are used by generations of foxes. Each year only a portion of the excavated area is used to rear the young. Home ranges of a pair, when the fox populations is high, varies between 16 to 27 sq. km (6.2 to 10 sq. mi);

Dramatic populations collapses occur amongst the lemming-feeding foxes every three to five years, after the disappearance of their main dietary item. It is then that some of the survivors make spectacular migrations, with individuals appearing up to 1,300 km (800 mi) from their usual habitat.

Normally Arctic Foxes are solitary, but at the onset of the breeding season, from mid-February to late April, this changes. The pairs, which are monogamous, dig the snow out of their natal tunnel entrances in late March. The gestation period varies from 49 to 57 days. Most young are born between mid-May and mid-June. Litter size varies. It is dependent upon the food supply. In years when food is super-abundant, the vixen may give birth to as many as 27 young. In low lemming years, litters are small or only a few pairs breed. The babies are helpless, blind and deaf, weighing about 57 g (2 oz) at birth. They grow quickly. At two to four weeks they make their first appearance at the den mouth and are also weaned then. They may be moved to another den in mid-summer. After a short period of being supplied with solid food, they are abandoned, at which time they disperse. Those that survive the winter reach sexual maturity at about nine to ten months of age..

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Where to find Arctic Foxes in Alberta   

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