The journey of a young arctic fox, which trekked more than 2,175 miles from Norway to Canada in just 76 days, has stunned researchers and shed new light on the movement of the species over vast distances of sea ice.
The animal, also known as a coastal or blue fox, set off from the Svalbard Archipelago of Norway last year and ended up on a remote island in northern Nunavut, Canada, according to a study in Polar Research, published by the Norwegian Polar Institute.
The areas are connected seasonally by sea ice, and much of the journey was completed over vast stretches of the frozen Arctic Ocean. The fox also passed through Greenland, but kept forging further west, the researchers’ data showed, moving quickly across the ice sheets where food was scarce and conditions were harsh.
While this type of arctic fox has long been known for its endurance in the barren polar climate, such a fast transcontinental journey has never been documented before.
Eva Fuglei, one of the researchers from the Norwegian Polar Institute, said in a statement released by the group that the feat had prompted disbelief. “We didn’t think it was true,” she said. “Could the fox have been found dead, the collar taken off and now aboard a boat?”
But Fuglei said that no boats could travel that far north through the ice, so they knew it had to be the fox that was still on the move.
The animal left Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago on March 26, 2018, and reached Ellesmere Island in Nunavut 2½ months later. The details of the trek were released last week, and the researchers also published an animated map showing the fox’s journey.
Using a satellite tracking device, researchers determined that in one day alone, the fox, a female, had traveled about 96 miles.
“This is, to our knowledge, the fastest movement rate ever recorded for this species,” Fuglei said in the report, which she wrote with Arnaud Tarroux of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research.
The fox’s tracking collar stopped transmitting in February 2019, according to the report, so the animal’s ultimate fate is unknown.
Why did the fox take such an extreme, transcontinental journey in the first place? The study indicated that the trek may have been prompted by a lack of available food or by the need to seek a new habitat.
Sea ice plays a vital role in foxes’ ability to migrate between areas and find resources, the study noted. But that ice has become increasingly threatened as a result of climate change.
Svalbard Archipelago has been particularly affected by rising global temperatures, experts say. A study from the Bjerknes Center, a Norway-based climate research organization, found that the area had experienced significant loss of sea ice and was on course to continue warming up.
Ola Elvestuen, Norway’s environment minister, called the study “another example of how important sea ice is to wildlife in the Arctic.”
“The warming in the north is frighteningly fast,” he said, adding, “We must cut emissions quickly to prevent the sea ice from disappearing all summer.”