From Alaska and northern Canada to Greenland and Scandinavia, exploring the Arctic ranks among the world’s greatest adventures. For us, one of the most rewarding aspects was seeing the incredible array of Arctic animals that manage to survive in these harsh landscapes.
As the global threats of climate change increase, the wildlife that calls the Arctic home is increasingly endangered. Arctic animals such as polar bears and beluga whales have been thriving in this icy environment for centuries; but shrinking sea ice and rapidly warming oceans are dramatically impacting their ability to survive.
These species play a critical role in the Arctic ecosystem. Others—including caribou, muskox, seals, and whales—play an important role in the diet of indigenous Arctic communities. Through the food chain, all Arctic animals (including humans) are connected. Here’s a look at some of the region’s key wildlife species that we believe make it imperative to reverse climate change before it’s too late:
Arctic Marine Life
This was recently proclaimed the longest living vertebrate on Earth, after radiocarbon dating estimated one female to be around 400 years old. Known by the Inuit name eqalussuaq, these elusive giants can grow up to 21 feet long, love cold water, and can be found at depths up to 7,200 feet.
The “Unicorn of the Sea” is an odd-looking whale closely related to the beluga. Males have a long, helical tusk that can grow up to 10 feet long. They’re believed to use their tusks to communicate, and drone video shot in Nunavut in 2016 showed them used to stun Arctic cod before feeding.
One of our favorite Arctic animals, this adorable (but endangered) species can walk on land but spends most of its time in the water. They prey on marine invertebrates, remarkably using rocks as tools to open shells. It’s widely considered a keystone species, because they control sea urchin populations that would damage the ecosystem.
There are six types of seals that call the Arctic home: bearded seals, harp seals, hooded seals, spotted seals, ribbon seals, and ringed seals. Ribbon and spotted seals boast the most striking coats, but harp and ringed seals are arguably the most important in terms of the Arctic food chain, with life cycles that are inherently linked to sea ice.
The Wilford Brimley of Arctic animals,walruses are known for their mustaches, which are extremely sensitive and used to detect shellfish on the dark ocean floor. Their long tusks are often used to poke holes in ice and haul their huge bodies out of the water. They can also choose to slow their heartbeats to help them withstand frigid polar temps.
There are 17 different cetaceans commonly found in the Arctic, including three baleen whales (bowhead, gray, and minke) and several species of dolphin and porpoise. Narwhals, belugas, and orcas inhabit the Arctic all year round. Humpbacks, gray whales, and other migratory whales swim north in the summer to give birth in the cool Arctic waters.
Birds of the Arctic
Found throughout the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Asia, Europe, and North America, this seabird is among the most common Arctic animals on this list. What’s uncommon is its yearly migration, in which it travels from its Arctic breeding grounds to wintering grounds off the coast of Antarctica, some 25,000 miles away!
Colloquially known as the “sea parrot” or “clown of the sea” for its colorful bill and waddling gait, the Atlantic puffin is the official bird of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. They also breed in large clifftop colonies in Greenland, Iceland, and Norway. Young puffins leave the nest after about six weeks, and do not return to dry land for several years.
Our country’s national animal is an iconic sight in Alaska and Canada: Its preferred nesting habitat is old-growth trees near large bodies of water from which it can snatch fish with its massive talons. They’re not actually bald, but white-headed, and were removed from the list of endangered and threatened wildlife species in 2007.
Preferring higher elevations and more barren ground than other ptarmigan species, the rock ptarmigan turns from gray and brown uppers in summer to all white in winter. Our guide in Alaska jokingly referred to them as the “Chicken McNuggets of the tundra,” because they’re easy prey for man and beast alike.
One of the few birds that even non-birders love, seeing a snowy owl has been on an increasing number of travelers’ bucket lists ever since Hagrid gave Hedwig to Harry Potter. Native to Arctic regions in Eurasia and North America, these beauties are among the few owl species who hunt during the day, making them relatively easy to spot.
Land Mammals of the Arctic
Native to the Arctic and well adapted to cold climates, this is another Arctic animal that turns from brown in summer to a snowy white in winter. They’re monogamous during the breeding season, working together to raise their young in underground dens. They also eat almost anything, from berries and seaweed to fish, birds, and even ringed seal pups.
Like the ptarmigan, this beautiful bunny is a favorite snack among most Arctic predators. Their best defense is running, which they can do at speeds up to 40 mph. They differ from their southern cousins quite a bit, with shorter ears and noses, more fat (around 20% of their total body weight), and thick fur to help withstand sub-freezing temps.
Classified as marine mammals, these Arctic animals are born on land but spend most of their time on sea ice. Here, they hunt for seals (their favorite food), living off their fat reserves after the ice melts. Unfortunately this makes them especially susceptible to climate change, with some scientists suggesting we may lose 2/3 of the world’s population by 2050.
The hunting and herding of reindeer (which are also known as caribou in North America) have been vital to the indigenous people of the Arctic and sub-Arctic for centuries. Laplanders still use them for their meat, milk, and hides, as well as for transportation purposes, hauling sleds similar to those preferred by a certain “jolly old elf.”
Found in remote wilderness areas from Alaska to Europe and Asia, the gray wolf (a.k.a. timber wolf) ranks among the world’s most advanced, feared, and best-known apex predators. They travel in packs made up of nuclear families, feeding primarily on large ungulates. The white Alaskan tundra wolf subspecies is one of North America’s most beautiful Arctic animals.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 24 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.