Arctic Wildlife Primer #1 - The Basics

Name a place where the animals might eat you before you can eat them.

Besides Jurassic Park, Africa and other places where lions, tigers and bears rule, the Arctic fits that description. That’s where you find Polar Bears – the great white hunters of the north. The northern polar region was named Arctos, which is Greek for bear, and the prominent constellation Ursa Major (great bear) points to the north pole star Arcturus.

[TRIP TRIVIA: If your life-long wish is to see penguins and polar bears play together on an ice floe, you’re in for a disappointment… penguins live in Antarctica, which is the southern polar region, and polar bears live in the Arctic – the polar opposite of the Antarctic, which doesn’t host any indigenous land mammals.]

Polar BearPolar bears and their close relatives of the Brown and Grizzly persuasion aren’t the only animals that call the Arctic home. Arctic-dwellers also include walruses, seals, whales and other sea-lovers as well as land mammals like moose, musk ox, caribou, Arctic fox and even wolves. Arctic animals are closely related to their cousins in other parts of the world, except that they are specially adapted to the extremely cold and windy environment.

The Arctic also supports a plethora of sea-savvy birds, including those with cool names like Phalarope, Kittiwake, Guillemot and Puffin. There is an abundance of marine animals to feed the birds.

Ocean Dining
In the summer, 50% of the Arctic Ocean is covered in permanent pack ice with an average thickness of about 3 meters. This ice pack increases to 85% in the winter. But that doesn’t mean the Arctic Ocean doesn’t support life – and plenty of it! Polar waters in general are known for promoting fewer species (less diversity), but each species typically boasts a large population (many individuals).

WalrusHow do marine animals survive in the Arctic’s sun-starved and ice-covered conditions? When the ice retreats in the summer, it creates an edge effect where sunlight penetrates. That seasonal light promotes an algae bloom around the ice edge. This results in great dining for crustaceans. Plus, warmer water temperatures in the open sea and near the ice edge promote the growth of plant plankton. That means the Arctic coastal waters are full of nutrients and food.

The most abundant life in the Arctic Ocean is plankton – including diatoms, flagellates and other green algae, depending on the region – and copepods, which are tiny crustaceans that nearly everybody else eats. Copepod is Greek for “oar-footed” because these creatures paddle around using oar-shaped legs.

Polar squid is the preferred snack for male Sperm whales, Orcas, seals and many sea birds. Sea snails (pteropods) are an important food for bowhead whales. These snails graze on phytoplankton and gather in big swarms that discolor the water. Krill, which plays a central role in the Antarctic food chain, doesn’t live in the Arctic.

The Arctic supports a wide range of fish, most notably Arctic cod, which dines mostly on plankton and likes its water very cold. Arctic cod is a favorite of commercial fishermen near Iceland and Greenland, and Scandinavians dry and salt them to make klipfisk. Capelin winters in deep water and surfaces in the summer. It’s a key species in that cod, seabirds, seals and whales all eat it. Polar cod is truly circumpolar in that it lives in near-zero temperatures. Because it’s smaller, Polar cod is food for seabirds and bigger cod, but humans show little interest in it on a commercial level. Salmon species, including char, live in the ocean but stay near freshwater inlets and travel up the rivers to spawn.

The Arctic even houses the most northerly shark – the Greenland shark. This ominous fellow lurks at the surface and grows up to 6.5 meters long, making him the largest of the dogfish. The shark’s fresh meat is poisonous; it smells like ammonia because this fish actually urinates through its flesh! That’s why the Inuits first dried the shark’s flesh before feeding it to their dogs. Never wasteful, they also used the shark’s liver for fuel oil.

As an adaptive feature, all polar fish have natural anti-freeze in their blood to prevent them from becoming fish-flavored ice cubes in the cold Arctic drink. Really!