How animals are adapted to live in the Arctic

polar bear - caribou - musk ox - wolf - wolverine
arctic fox - ermine - lemming - arctic hare
arctic ground squirrel - birds - whales - harp seal - walrus

ANIMALS living on LAND

CARIBOU are members of the deer family. Their thick fur coats have hollow hairs. This helps to keep them warm. They move across the Arctic in large herds. Caribou eat moss, lichens and green plants. For the winter they go to the forests of the south where trees give them protection from the wind and the snow. In the spring the caribou leave the forests and go to the tundra where the calves are born. caribou, Bob Stevens,  US Fish and Wildlife Service
image credit : Bob Stevens; US Fish and Wildlife Service; license: public domain

*** more about the CARIBOU***

MUSK OXEN have thick overcoats of shaggy long straight hair that hang down to the ground. Their undercoats are thick brown fleece. Some of the coat is shed in the summer. They huddle together in groups for protection and to keep warm. When wolves attack, the musk oxen form a circle around the calves. The adults face outward and use their sharp horns for defence. musk oxen, photo: Jo Keller, US Fish and Wildlife Service, license: Public Domain
image credit: Jo Keller, USFWS; license: public domain

*** more about the MUSK OX ***

Tundra wolves live on the mainland. Arctic wolves live farther north on the islands. Tundra wolves are often brown or grey. Arctic wolves are smaller and white in colour. They have a thick undercoat of soft fur and an overcoat of long, thick hair. To help reduce heat loss, they have smaller more-rounded ears, a shorter muzzle and shorter legs than other wolves.

Wolves hunt in small packs. Arctic wolves hunt musk oxen, caribou and arctic hares. They also eat lemmings, birds and ground squirrels.

arctic wolf, license: Creative Commons image credit : Ber'Sophus ; license : Creative Commons

*** more about the ARCTIC WOLF ***

THE WOLVERINE is a fierce and strong animal about the size of a bear cub. It is the largest member of the weasel family. It is most common on the mainland of Nunavut, Yukon and the Northwest Territories. The wolverine is short, with powerful legs and large feet. It looks like a small bear. Wolverine fur is used for trimming parka hoods. photo by Steve Hillebrand, US Fish and Wildlife Service, license : public domain
image credit: Steve Hillebrand, USFWS; license : public domain

*** more about the WOLVERINE ***

arctic fox THE ARCTIC FOX is hard to see in the snow. It has a thick white coat of fur for the winter. In the summer the coat is brownish-grey. The Arctic fox eats alot of lemmings. They also eat hares, birds' eggs and the chicks. If there is alot of food, the female has eleven or more pups, but if there is not much food she may have only five or six pups.

*** more about the ARCTIC FOX ***

THE ERMINE ( least weasel, or stoat ) lives wherever it can make a den to raise its young and store its food. The den is in a pile of rocks or loose earth. When lemmings are plentiful, so are weasels. Although they depend mostly on lemmings for food, they are not afraid to attack an Arctic hare. The adult male is about 30 cm. ( 12 in.) long including the tail. The female is smaller. This animal is slim so it can go into lemmings' tunnels. The winter coats are white, and summer coats are brown. Ermine are fast, very brave and always hungry. When the ermine kills an animal it takes the food home. white ermine

*** more about the WEASEL ***

LEMMINGS look like fat furry hamsters. The brown lemming and the collared lemming live in the Arctic. The brown lemming prefers wetter areas, while the collared lemming is usually seen in rocky places. The collared lemming turns white in winter.

In the winter lemmings stay warm in tunnels under the snow. When summmer comes the lemmings leave their dens to feed on new leaves, grasses, roots and berries. If there is plenty of food a female lemming has as many as six sets of babies. Many arctic animals eat lemmings.

Brown Lemming
brown lemming, photo by Emily Weiser, used with permission
image credit: Emily Weiser ; used with permission

*** more about LEMMINGS ***

THE ARCTIC HARE lives farther north than any other hare. They live among the rocks on hillsides where they can hide from foxes, wolves, owls and other enemies. Hares eat grasses, willows and other plants. Their favorite meal is the arctic willow.

Hundreds of them gather together in herds, to stay warm, and for protection from their many enemies. When a noise is heard they hop away in all directions.

The fur of the hares that live farther south may change to gray or brown for the summer.

arctic hare, photo by Steve Sayles, license: Creative Commons
image : Steve Sayles ; license : Creative Commons

*** more about the ARCTIC HARE ***

arctic ground squirrel, Jim McCarthy, USFWS
image : Jim McCarthy, USFWS; license : public domain

ARCTIC GROUND SQUIRRELS make underground dens with lots of tunnels and rooms. They live in colonies . During the spring and summer they eat and eat (tundra plants, seeds, fruits) to prepare for a long sleep . In late summer they store food in their burrows. When they wake up in the spring there is stored food to eat until the new plants begin to grow.

Ground squirrels are the only Arctic animals that hibernate. They line the burrows with lichens, leaves and musk ox hair, then roll up into a ball and sleep for seven months. The body temperature drops to just above freezing and the heartbeat slows down during hibernation.


When the snow starts to melt hundreds of thousands of birds arrive to nest, raise their young and feed on Arctic plants and insects. There are seabirds, waterfowl, shore birds, song birds and many others. The birds nest on the rocky cliffs or along the shore. Others make their nests in the grass or on the ground.

The flocks of migrating birds arrive in May or early June and leave in the fall to spend winter in warmer places.

The ptarmigan, raven and snowy owl stay in the Arctic all year round.

more about ARCTIC BIRDS
Snowy Owl
snowy owl, Philip Greenspun
image credit : courtesy of Philip Greenspun ; copyright notice


POLAR BEARS have a thick oily fur coat and a layer of blubber under their skin. They spend most of their time on the pack ice or in the water, where they can hunt their favorite food - the ringed seal. The white fur helps the bear sneak up on seals that are laying on the ice. In the summer it is harder to catch seals, so before summer arrives, the bears eat as much as they can to fatten up, then live off the fat in their bodies. The females digs a den in the snow to hibernate during the worst part of the winter. The cubs are born in the den.
polar bear and cubs, photo courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service
image credit : US Fish and Wildlife Service, license: public domain

*** more about the POLAR BEAR ***

bowhead and belugas
bowhead and belugas

WHALES are able to live in the cold waters of the Arctic. They have a thick layer of blubber under their skin. Only three whales make Nunavut their home - belugas, bowheads and narwhals.

Bowheads can reach 18 metres in length. They almost became extinct due to overhunting in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Whalers wanted the whales' oil and baleen . They are still considered endangered in Nunavut.

Narwhals have long ivory tusks. They are threatened by overhunting for their tusks and meat.

The white belugas seem to be smiling all the time. They make noises that sound like chirps, trills, whistles and clicks. Belugas use their foreheads to smash the ice so they can get to the surface to breathe.

To learn more about these whales, go to --


Female HARP SEALS have their pups in early spring. They crawl out on the ice to give birth to their pups. For a few days the baby harp seals wear fluffy white coats of fur. Within two weeks, their coats turn dark grey. When the ice melts the harp seals swim north following the schools of fish. baby harp seal

young harp seal and mother

*** more about SEALS ***

walrus, courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service, license - Public Domain THE WALRUS has to eat thousands of krill and shellfish each day. With its thick whiskers, the walrus feels around in the water for krill and on the ocean floor for shellfish.

Layers of blubber protect the walruses when they swim in the freezing Arctic seas and when they lie out on the ice in the bitter cold wind. Walruses are very noisy animals. They are often seen crowded together on ice floes or on the shore. ( a herd )

*** more about the WALRUS ***


Web Pages for Students

(2000) updated August 2011

photo Brown Lemming - Emily Weiser - Mammals of the North Slope (Alaska) ; used with permission
many photos are courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Digital Library

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