The planet’s polar regions, the Arctic and Antarctic, are both remarkably cold, which may explain why people often get them confused. Both are technically cold deserts, with very little precipitation. In both places the winters are frozen and devastatingly dark. Summers are still somewhat frozen (though, thanks to global warming, increasingly less so), but endlessly bright.
The only real notable differences between the north and south poles are that the seasons occur at opposing times of the year, and Antarctica is generally frostier than the Artic. This is an effect of the oceanic climate moderating the temperature up north.
But there are other, more subtle differences between these places. The Arctic is largely sea, with the north pole over 400 miles away from the nearest land mass. Antarctica is mostly an ice sheet, with the south pole located some 800 miles from the sea. While Antarctica is nearly completely ice, the Artic has mountains, hills, plains, rivers, tundra, and the taiga, the world’s largest biome. In other words, the Arctic has plentiful plant life, whereas the mere 1% of Antarctica that isn’t ice is sparsely vegetated.
As a result, Arctic wildlife and Antarctica wildlife are vastly different, and the regions are inhabited primarily by specialized species. Because the Arctic has plants and fresh water, it’s able to support several large land mammals as well as smaller rodents, weasels, and insects. In Antarctica, where there’s very little flora and even less fresh water, the largest land animal is a midge.
Even so, both the Arctic and Antarctic are home to some incredible wildlife. Here’s a look at the most noteworthy species:
The Arctic spans Europe, Asia, and North America, with animals able to migrate to warmer environs in the winter and back to enjoy the more productive summer. Most of these Arctic animals live in the tundra—the open plains located just north of the taiga. Aquatic animals are another ever-present and wonderful attraction.
When thinking of Arctic animals, the polar bear is generallythe first species to come to mind. These are by far the largest bears on the planet, weighing up to 1,500 pounds and measuring nearly eight feet long. They spend their entire lives in the Arctic, feeding mostly on seals. They are in the water so often that they’re considered a hybrid aquatic-land animal, hunting at the edge between ice and sea. Their only predators are humans.
Like bison, which they closely resemble, musk oxen are grazing animals that have nearly been wiped out by hunting. They live primarily on the tundra, and roughly 75% of the current world population (150,000) lives in the Canadian Arctic. They are actually more closely related to sheep than oxen: Their Latin name, Ovibos, translates to “sheep-ox.” Arctic wolves are their main natural predator.
Reindeer have almost become mythical creatures, but they are very real and very common in the Arctic. Caribou and reindeer are, in fact, the same species. But caribou tend to be slightly larger and wild, while reindeer are basically domesticated caribou. They are known to travel up to 3,000 miles every year and can run nearly 50 mph. Unfortunately, due to human development and climate change, their numbers are gradually dwindling.
Little rotund bodies, short appendages, and lots of thick fur have helped the Arctic fox adapt to their frozen environmental conditions. They’re found throughout the Arctic, from Canada and Greenland to Russia and Scandinavia. They have unique, forward-facing ears to help them hunt by hearing prey under the snow. Then, they jump high and pounce through the snow crust to get it.
Unlike other whales, narwhals do not migrate out of the frigid Arctic oceans. Instead, they move into the deep water at the end of winter and back to the shallows in summer. Ironically, this toothed whale has only one tooth—its famous “unicorn horn.” Nevertheless, they feed on fish, squid, and shrimp, while predators such as orca and polar bears sometimes feed on them.
Both male and female walrus have the trademark tusks, which are used for defense, breaking ice, and climbing out of the water. They also have two unique pairs of flippers: The front flippers have five digits, and the back flippers can turn forward to help with moving on ice. Walrus have distinct herds from the Pacific to Atlantic, and they like to congregate in large social huddles.
By no means does this exhaust the list of Arctic animals. Rodents, such as lemmings, squirrels, and Artic hares, are ever-present, as are Arctic wolves, moose, and Dall sheep. Snowy owls, puffins, and other hardy fowl make for exciting birdwatching opportunities. There are also interesting members of the weasel family: wolverines, ermines, and possibly minks. The seas are full of whales (such as orca and beluga) and seal species (ringed, bearded, hooded, spotted, harp, and ribbon).
Antarctica, frankly, is not quite as hospitable a place as the Arctic. With less vegetation and large expanses of icy nothingness, animal life is more or less relegated to the relatively pristine coastlines. However, along these coastlines, Antarctic animals—mostly seals and penguins—often gather in large, densely populated colonies.
The largest of all penguins, emperor penguins can be nearly four feet tall and weigh almost 90 pounds. As seen in the famous documentary March of the Penguins, this species is renowned for their incredible journey to the harshest breeding grounds on the planet. Typically, though, they reside near the coastal waters of Antarctica, where they dine on squid and krill. They are enthusiastically hunted by leopard seals and orca.
Weighing a mere 11 pounds, Adelie penguins live in the deep, deep south and travel long distances inland to nest. These nesting colonies will sometimes contain over half a million birds, which makes them very noisy and super-smelly places. They are known for having unmusical mating calls and powerful beaks. Adults are a favorite menu item for leopard seals, and the eggs and chicks are loved by skuas (highly aggressive seabirds).
Southern Elephant Seals
The largest seal of all, elephant seals have incredible sexual dimorphism. Males can weigh upwards of 8,000 pounds and 15 feet long, while females rarely exceed 1,800 pounds and nine feet long. While they are found in the deep south, these seals prefer the pack ice of the sub-Antarctic islands. They are highly regarded divers, able to stay underwater 20-30 minutes on a single breath, and can reach over 4,000 feet deep.
Highly respected and fierce predators, leopard seals have a diverse diet that includes squid, fish, penguins, other water birds, and seal pups of other species. Due to being long and slender, they are often much larger (second only to southern elephant seals) than they appear. They can be found a bit further north than other Antarctic seals. Though leopard seals aren’t great divers, they can swim around 25 mph.
Antarctica’s invertebrates also warrant attention. The largest—the wingless midge—is only 13 mm long, but this collection of tiny creatures are miraculous survivors. They inhabit some of the harshest conditions on the planet, using different survival methods for withstand the freezing temperatures. This ability makes them extremely interesting to scientists. Plus, some of them are weirdly cute (see: the water bear).
Blue Eyed Shags
Sure to be a special entry on any birder’s list, the blue eyed shag is particular to Antarctic and sub-Antarctic areas, where they keep a nest all year. These nests are unique in that they consist of a lot of plant matter (rather than merely rocks) and are only built in ice-free spaces. Though somewhat penguin-like in appearance, these shags are actually cormorants and can fly.
Though the range of wildlife species in Antarctica is significantly less than in the Arctic, there are still many other animals to find. King, chinstrap, and gentoo are three more species of penguins to spot. There are also more varieties of seals, including the crabeater, southern fur, and Weddell. Orcas and numerous other whales are common to the area, as are several species of birds.
The Great Migrator
Interestingly, there is one species of bird—the Arctic tern—which is famed for annually migrating from one polar region to the other. They’re tiny birds (about a quarter of a pound) and some fly over 55,000 miles a year on their round-trip journey between the Arctic and Antarctica. Because of this migration, spending their summers at the warmer of the two poles, these birds experience more daylight than any other animal on Earth.
Jonathon Engels is a traveler, writer, and vegan gardener. Born and raised in Louisiana, he has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in between. His interests include permaculture, cooking, and music. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.