An Arctic Fox Walked 2,178 Miles In Just 76 Days, And The Record-breaking Feat Left Experts Stunned

For many people across the world, there are few things more rewarding than looking after a beloved pet. With that in mind, it’s sometimes easy to forget just how capable non-domesticated animals are out there in the wild. Indeed, one such case stunned a group of experts back in June 2018.

Now the previous summer, researchers had put a tracker on an Arctic fox, as they looked to study its movement. What’s more, the employees at the Norwegian Polar Institute noticed some significant activity around eight months later in 2018. However, no one could’ve predicted what happened next, or that the animal might set a record.

Indeed, the Arctic fox moved away from Spitsbergen, Norway, in March 2018, kicking off an incredible journey. And some three weeks later, she arrived in Greenland thanks to the “sea ice,” which made it possible. But the animal’s epic trek didn’t end there, though. For you see, what was about to happen would leave one researcher so shocked she couldn’t believe it had happened.

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Yes, the Arctic fox continued to move along sea ice at a rapid rate, leaving the researchers stunned. And at the start of June she finally reached her destination. Unbelievably, she arrived on Ellesmere Island, a piece of land located in Northern Canada. By completing such a journey, the mammal made a bit of history.

In certain parts of the world there belong incredible animals who survive and thrive in particular habitats and climates. As a result, visitors from other countries might want to catch a glimpse of them in the wild. From polar bears to lions, it’s amazing to see these creatures in their natural environment.

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Now you see, Arctic animals are especially fascinating in that regard, given the conditions that they have to endure. Sadly, some of those species are under threat from extinction, including the sea creature narwhal and the aforementioned polar bears. However, there are many others that aren’t in immediate danger but, nevertheless, have to fight to survive.

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Indeed, the Arctic fox is one of those animals, but there have been some close calls in the last century. In fact, the foxes that were native to places such as Sweden were nearly wiped out during that period. Maybe unsurprisingly, hunters were responsible. On the whole, though, the species’ conservation status currently stands at “Least Concern.”

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Located in the Northern Hemisphere, there are two distinct types of Arctic foxes living out in the wild. Additionally, these animals are defined by their contrasting eating habits, resulting from their living conditions. In addition to that, the color of the foxes’ fur is also different, which further adds to the distinction.

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As the Norwegian Polar Institute goes onto explain, “The Arctic fox is generally classified into two ecotypes. “[The] coastal fox and [the] lemming fox. The coastal ecotype lives on Arctic islands without lemmings, and largely relies on food sources from the marine food web.” Additionally, the creatures have a lifespan of ten to 15 years.

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Furthermore, the Institute discusses some of the other differences between the Arctic foxes. It continued, “The coastal ecotype is most typically represented by a dark (blue) color morph. [This reflects] that the foxes are often moving against a dark ground in regions with ice and snow-free coastlines in winter.” As such, camouflage provides the animals with a great advantage.

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To add to that, the Institute said in its research paper, “The lemming ecotype (predominantly of the white color morph) is heavily dependent on cyclic peaks of lemming populations for successful breeding. But [they] may shift to other terrestrial or marine resources in years of low lemming abundance.” Off the back of that, an intriguing observation was made.

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According to the Norwegian Polar Institute’s report, there was one other key difference between the Arctic foxes. “It has been suggested that long-distance movements and nomadic behavior are more common in the lemming ecotype than in the coastal ecotype,” the paper read. On that note, it attempted to explain why that was the case.

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At a certain point in time, a lack of food could encourage the white-haired foxes to leave their domain. But that’s not all, though. Indeed, the Institute said that when the fox population is at a high, during low food availability, competition kicks in. And that competition between the lemming Arctic foxes causes them to disperse, and move elsewhere.

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As suggested by their living conditions, Arctic foxes are also able to withstand incredibly cold temperatures out in the wild. Indeed, thanks to their smaller facial features and insulated paws, the animals can handle temperatures of almost -60°F. Meanwhile, it’s been reported that the species’ average weight comes in at just under 20 pounds. So let’s get back to our story.

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Now, a group of experts at the Norwegian Polar Institute caught a coastal (blue) Arctic fox in July 2017. Interestingly, this particular study began some five years before, with the researchers focusing their attention on the island of Spitsbergen. And the land itself is part of the Svalbard archipelago, located just north of Norway.

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After catching the fox, the team retrieved it and noted down some key information. The animal was a young female, weighing in at just over four pounds. At that stage, a tracking device was attached to her as well, with the researchers looking to monitor her movements in the wild.

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To add to that, the tracking device would be active for around three hours each day. It would then send information back to the Institute’s experts. To begin with, the Arctic fox showed no signs of leaving Spitsbergen, as she didn’t move for several months. In fact, during that time, the mammal roamed the island’s coast.

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Eye catchingly though, the fox started to make some significant movements in March 2018. As a result, the researchers documented her progress in a paper they titled, “One female’s long run across sea ice.” What’s more, over the course of those first few weeks, the data from the tracker proved very interesting.

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“[The Arctic fox] first moved to the north-east of Spitsbergen and reached the ice-free shore on March 11, 2018,” the research paper read. “She then changed course and headed west, reaching the shore, where she again met open water on March 16, 2018.” But from there, the animal went on to make a notable move.

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The report continued, “The Arctic fox turned again, heading south-east and crossing the northern part of Spitsbergen from west to east. [Then] on March 26, 2018, she met ice-covered sea for the first time and left Spitsbergen, heading north-east on the sea ice.” Evidently, the young fox finally found what she was looking for.

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And thanks to the ice, the Arctic fox was able to traverse the water and begin an incredible journey. Indeed, this would see her travel across the Northern Hemisphere. Not long after she departed Spitsbergen, the researchers noticed that her course was still changing. Eventually, the dark-haired mammal settled upon a new direction.

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So around three weeks later, the blue Arctic fox arrived in Greenland on April 16, 2018. In terms of distance, she’d covered almost 940 miles during that short period. Incredibly, her trek didn’t end there, as the youngster continued to travel along the sea ice to her ultimate destination. Yes, she moved further north.

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“[The Arctic fox] finally reached Ellesmere Island, Canada, 76 days (June 10, 2018) after leaving Spitsbergen,” the research paper revealed. “Here she stayed in a limited area around the Fosheim Peninsula, until the satellite transmitter stopped transmitting on February 6, 2019.” By the end of her epic journey, she had walked more than 2,000 miles. Well, 2,178 miles to be exact.

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Furthermore, the result of the study delighted one particular researcher. “We first did not believe it was true,” Eva Fuglei from the Institute told The Guardian. And she was not exaggerating. In fact, the team initially thought the fox’s collar must’ve somehow come off and made it aboard a boat. However, Fuglei added, “But no, there are no boats that go so far up in the ice. So we just had to keep up with what the fox did.”

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Alongside the total mileage, the Norwegian Polar Institute workers received more eye-opening figures. For the Arctic fox to have covered that distance in a relatively short time, she had to move very quickly. So with that in mind, the researchers believed that a bit of history was made. Indeed, a record was broken.

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As the experts went onto explain, “The fox’s average movement rate varied greatly throughout the journey from Spitsbergen to Ellesmere, with a mean of 28 miles per day and peaking at 96 miles per day. This is, to our knowledge, the fastest movement rate ever recorded for this species.” At that point, the old record received a mention.

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Strikingly indeed, the contrast between the two figures was clear. “[The new record is] 1.4 times faster than the maximum rate recorded in the previously reported long-distance movement of an adult male Arctic fox in Alaska,” read the paper. Off the back of that, the researchers then took a closer look at the transmitted data.

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As it turned out, the Arctic fox moved a lot faster through one particular area of the journey. The report explained, “The female traveled most quickly while crossing the ice sheet in north-western Greenland. When traveling on sea ice, her average movement rate was 21 miles per day, suggesting that sea ice was used predominantly as a platform for dispersal.”

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But, perhaps inevitably, the Arctic fox did slow down over a couple of stretches, perking the interests of the researchers. After looking at that information, they speculated as to why she dropped her speed on the sea ice. In their minds, there were a few explanations that could cover the noticeable dip.

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The research paper revealed, “Despite a high average movement rate on the sea ice, the movement rate dropped below six miles per day for 48 hours on two occasions (April 7-8 and April 10-11). Such short stopovers might indicate physical barriers on the sea ice, bad weather or the occurrence of a food source.”

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From there, the Norwegian report then touched upon a significant alteration in the female’s diet . As was previously mentioned, a coastal Arctic fox eats fish, unlike the lemming ecotype. After arriving in Canada, though, something changed. “The Arctic fox was of the blue color morph typical for coastal environments, where Arctic foxes are adapted to food webs without lemmings,” read the report. “[This] Arctic fox settled on Ellesmere Island in a food web with lemmings, thereby switching ecosystems.”

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On that note, the Norwegian Polar Institute researchers made a fascinating suggestion regarding the Arctic fox species as a whole. The paper added, “Our observation supports evidence of gene flow across Arctic regions, found in studies of the circumpolar genetic structure of Arctic fox populations.” But their thoughts didn’t end there.

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To further back up that observation, the experts spoke about the migration habits of the lemming ecotype. In fact, they argued that some of those animals ended up with the coastal Arctic foxes in Norway. Additionally, the fox that traveled to Canada might’ve already had it in her genes to make that kind of journey.

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With that in mind, Norway’s Minister of Climate and Environment felt the need to share one of her biggest concerns. “This is another example of how important sea ice is to wildlife in the Arctic,” Ola Elvestuen told the Norwegian Polar Institute’s official website. “The warming in the north is frighteningly fast.”

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Moreover, Elvestuen went onto explain, “We must cut emissions quickly to prevent the sea ice from disappearing all summer. When the sea ice decreases as fast as it does around Svalbard, we must protect the species and ecosystems against other environmental impacts. This is an important consideration in the environmental work both in Svalbard and in the sea areas around.”

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Meanwhile, the story of the Arctic fox spread quickly across the world during summer 2019. In fact, CBS News scored an interview with a biologist named Jeff Corwin, who was based in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. And while talking with him, the channel asked for his thoughts on what happened. Surprisingly, he wasn’t as taken aback as others by the Arctic fox’s grand feat.

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Indeed, Corwin said, “I think it’s wonderful, I think it’s fascinating, but I’m not all that surprised. When animals need to go (move on), [it’s] largely because they’re seeking places to have families, or they’re looking for resources like food, or changes in seasonality. They will go on the move and they will migrate.”

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At this point, Corwin lists off some other examples of animals traveling long distances, reiterating his lack of surprise. From here, he switches his focus back to the Arctic fox, as he tries to explain what was pushing her to make the journey. In the biologist’s opinion, there could’ve been a few reasons.

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Enthusiastically, Corwin continues, “[The Arctic fox] is a young vixen, and she’s likely beginning her journey as an adult. She may live nine or ten years in the wild. She’s got her beautiful brown, tawny colored summer fur on, and she’s making her way to carve out new territory to survive.” Furthermore, he implied she may even have been tracking a tasty meal along the way.

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He said, “[The Arctic fox] could be following potential prey. This is the time where baby birds are hatching, where marine mammals are giving birth, so she may be wandering the beaches in search of afterbirth. Or she may be hunting and foraging on birds eggs.” Whatever the explanation might be, this epic trek won’t be forgotten.

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