What Do Arctic Foxes Eat?

The adorable Arctic predators never let a little snow get in the way of a meal.
Don't let this sweet face fool you: Arctic foxes eat anything that moves.
Don't let this sweet face fool you: Arctic foxes eat anything that moves. / Erik F. Brandsborg/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0 (fox); Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (frame)

It isn’t easy living on top of the world, where there’s no sunlight for four months a year and even summer is literally freezing.

Arctic foxes (Vulpes lagopus, also known as Alopex lagopus) are perfectly adapted for life in this harsh terrain. They are found through the circumpolar region as far south as the northern edges of North America, Europe, and Asia.

Their small, sturdy bodies are a first line of defense against the full-time chill. At about 1 foot tall and 2 to 3 feet long, Arctic foxes are more compact and stout than other fox species, with short legs and snouts that reduce the loss of body heat. Their long, fluffy tails help insulate them and aid in balance, and a luxurious, white winter coat makes them nearly invisible against the snow, camouflaging them to predators like wolves and polar bears.

White Arctic fox walking on the snow-covered tundra
The Arctic fox’s fluffy white fur camouflages it against snow and ice. / Alexey Seafarer/500px Plus/Getty Images

Arctic foxes are omnivores, eating everything that their tundra habitat provides. In summer, the environment bustles with tasty options: voles and other small mammals, birds, frogs, berries, insects, birds’ eggs, and even the feces of other animals. If they live near coastlines they may feed on fish, seal pups, and sea birds.

In winter, when food is much harder to find, the crafty canines follow polar bears onto ice floes and scavenge the scraps from the bears’ hunts. When food in one place is depleted, Arctic foxes been known to travel 2500 miles for better pickings.

Lunching on Lemmings

One of the Arctic fox’s preferred foods are lemmings, a genus of small mammals that live throughout the Arctic. Lemmings are so important to Arctic foxes’ survival that fox populations fluctuate in response to lemming numbers. These plump little rodents keep warm and active in winter by tunneling under the snow, where they’re invisible to predators.

But not inaudible, at least not to the Arctic fox.

The foxes have exceptionally keen hearing. If they detect movement beneath the snow, they wait patiently, cocking their heads back and forth, listening for the lemmings’ squeaks and footfalls. When a fox gets a bead on one, they literally leap into action: they jump several feet straight up in the air and dive snout-first into the snow, often snagging a lemming like a Hot Pocket out of a toaster oven.

The Arctic Fox Life Cycle

When snow and ice melt in the short Arctic summer, the fox’s white fur seems to melt away, too. They shed their floof to make way for a shorter bluish-gray or brown coat to blend in with the rocky tundra.

An Arctic fox with gray and brown fur stands on rocky terrain
An Arctic fox in its summer colors hunts for eggs and chicks below a bird nesting cliff in Svalbard, Norway. / Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

When prey is more abundant in warmer months, Arctic foxes store surplus food for the leaner winter months in their dens, which can be vast, multi-chambered homes buried six to 12 feet underground. If necessary, foxes can slow down their metabolism and curl up in their dens for a mini-hibernation. Some dens are hundreds of years old and have been used by many successive generations.

Those generations begin with a couple’s courtship involving chasing and play-fighting [PDF]. Mating usually takes place in spring, with the young, called kits or pups, born after six to eight weeks. They start life with gray or brown fur, whatever the season. Both parents take part in raising their kits.

Arctic foxes are monogamous, so the mating pair usually stays together for life—as if they weren’t sweet enough already. Unless, of course, you happen to be a lemming.

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