Curious, innovative and mysterious survivors of the arctic tundra.
Ever since explorers began venturing north into the harsh lands of the arctic, they have encountered arctic foxes in the unlikeliest of places. The arctic fox is an extraordinary creature. No bigger than a house cat, it survives on almost nothing in the middle of a land so hostile it seems incompatible with the very existence of life. The tundra is a place of endless days or endless nights where temperatures can reach -58°F (-50°C) for weeks at a time, and where the terrain consists mostly of ice sheets, pack ice, ice floes, icebergs, ice shelves and glaciers.
Arctic Fox tells the story of this animal from its evolutionary beginnings to its difficult life in the far north involving:
This informative, lively and beautifully photographed book will fascinate naturalists and general readers.
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Garry Hamilton is a journalist whose articles have appeared in magazines around the world. He is the author of Frog Rescue and Rhino Rescue, in the acclaimed Firefly Animal Rescue series.
Norbert Rosing travels annually to the Arctic to photograph arctic foxes, polar bears and other inhabitants of the region. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic and has won many awards for his work. He is the author and photographer of The World of the Polar Bear.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Iceland's central desert is not a place where you would want to live. Located on a plateau roughly 1,200 feet (400 m) above sea level, it is a terrain that's been pummeled for thousands of years by the activity of both glaciers and volcanoes. Its plains of lava dust are dotted with scattered pumice boulders and Daliesque sculptures of rock, giving it the look more of a moonscape than of a landscape. In August there's always a chance of a snowstorm, or a dust storm, and this would be tourist season. The rest of the year, owing to the latitude and altitude, it is as raw a place as one could imagine.
In the summer of 1932 a team of English scientists from the University of Cambridge mounted an expedition into a part of Iceland's central desert so remote, so inaccessible and so barren that part of it remained virtually unexplored. They could have come from the north, across more than 100 miles (160 km) of barely passable fields of broken rock. Instead they came from the south, by ski and by pulling sleds, across a 3,127 square mile (8,000 square kilometers) mountain of permanent ice known as Vatnajökull.
Part of their mission was to see how life returns after the physical forces of nature have wiped the slate of the Earth clean. Thus they were drawn to places amidst the lava fields where a hot spring or glacier-fed stream had allowed the faintest sparks of life to struggle forth. There they found and catalogued the hardy pioneers that were establishing themselves, however thinly. There were the beginnings of tundra-like vegetation, with patches of moss, sedges and even dwarf willow. There were various insects -- beetles, spiders and flies. There were several species of birds -- including ducks, swans and sandpipers -- that had been able to find, and survive on, the insects and water plants. And there was feces; feces from the only mammal on Earth capable of surviving this close to life's outer edge -- the arctic fox.
In the accounts of their adventure, the Englishmen made no mention of being surprised at this discovery and there is no reason to think that they had any reason to be. During the previous centuries, Europeans had ventured forth into the far north for the first time since the age of the Vikings. When they returned, they routinely brought back stories of encounters with arctic foxes in the unlikeliest of places. This is an animal -- an animal no bigger than an old house cat -- that can survive on almost nothing, in the middle of nowhere, under conditions that seem incompatible with the existence of life.
Until the 1980s, few scientists had ever studied the arctic fox in any great detail. And apart from a handful of magazine articles, very little has ever been written about the animal. Even in the eyes of popular culture, the arctic fox seems perennially overshadowed by larger, more charismatic celebrities like the polar bear, the walrus and the musk ox. Perhaps it's because so few people ever get to see an arctic fox. Perhaps it's too easy to mistake it for just another fox.
But there is plenty to admire, beginning with sheer beauty. What is it about certain forms and patterns in nature that we humans find so appealing? Is it something we understand just because we observed our parents' pleasant smiles as they felt the soft curve of a rose petal or stared at a blinding streak of snow on a craggy peak set against a deep blue sky? Or is there something about certain things that transcends our culturally generated inclinations? Surely the arctic fox stands as an argument for the latter. Look at it curled up in its cloudlike pillow of snow-white fur, an icon for beauty if there ever was one. Perhaps there is something deep within us that recognizes this material for what it is, one of nature's greatest feats of engineering. It is believed that no other animal coat can match the insulating properties of arctic fox fur. On a living animal (as opposed to the shoulders of a socialite) it is like a meringue -- seemingly nine parts air; one part solid, or at least as close as a solid can come to mimicking the lightness of air. In observing the arctic fox curled inside this blanket of its own making, do we secretly imagine ourselves tucked away in this very definition of comfort? Whatever the reason, there is no denying that few of us can look at a picture of this animal and not be touched -- touched by the desire to reach out and run our fingers through this downy carpet; touched by the magnificence of nature. We look at the arctic fox and we are pleased.
But beauty is only one aspect of this remarkable animal's appeal. Equally appealing, for very different reasons, is the arctic fox's ability to survive in what to most humans is an unfathomably strange place. This is the arctic tundra. It's a place where for part of the year there are no sunrises or sunsets or even high noons, just a mad dog sun that during midsummer circles around and around in a broad, halo-like orbit that gradually angles toward the southern sky before finally falling off the horizon entirely, not to be seen again for months. During this time, there is nothing but night.
It's a place where not a single day of the year is without a chance of snow, where the temperatures can reach -58 degrees Fahrenheit (-50 degrees Celsius) for days and even weeks at a time, where storms whip winds filled with icy shards with the ferocity of a sandblaster, and where the weather report often more closely matches a location on Mars than most others on Earth.
It's a place where the state of the nation is mostly described in terms of ice -- ice sheets, pack ice, ice floes, icebergs, ice shelves, landfast ice, frazil ice, grease ice, glaciers. It's a place where compasses don't work; where optical illusions caused by the sun and light and ice give the impression of mountains rising up from the horizon where no mountains exist.
It's a place where trees refuse to grow and where, on the rare occasions when they do, they grow sideways -- strewn across the rocks like old ship cables. Even the bacteria here seem to have adopted a four-day week, apparently uncommitted to the job of decay. As for the geology, this is a land of gobbledygook -- of strangmoors, felsenmeer, flarks, aufeis and pingos: a world where the surface of the land oozes and flows and expands and contracts like some alien monster sponge. The arctic ground isn't soft and crumbly like the soil most humans take for granted, but a frozen tomb preserving ancient vegetation and the bodies of giant beasts that haven't walked the Earth for millennia.
It's a land where no sound is what it seems. That cannon fire? It's two male musk oxen butting heads. That exploding building? It's a sheet of ice, as thick as a one-story building and as big as 10 football fields, folding into pieces by the force of ocean currents. Or maybe it's a 10-million-ton iceberg, top-heavy from decades of current wear, succumbing to gravity with a single, dramatic 180-degree backflip.
The challenges facing life in the Arctic are extreme. First, there's the low temperature. Colder places exist, notably in Antarctica and farther into the Siberian interior. But the difference between severe and most severe hardly matters. When an Inuit ice fisherman hauls an arctic char out of a lake, the fish freezes solid within minutes. Living human flesh is no match for the arctic winter. "Certain parts of me -- cheeks and chin, particularly -- had begun to burn as if seared with a hot iron," wrote the French amateur anthropologist Gontran de Poncins after spending a winter in the Canadian Arctic, "and where the burning took place I felt the flesh suddenly harden. I was shriveling up. I tried to lower my head, to turn sideways away from the wind, to roll up in a tense and miserable ball. I was ready to give up, and for a word I should have broken into sobs. My soul was shaken. Nature here was too strong, there was no resisting her."
The absence of sunlight is equally brutal. With limited solar energy there is little biological productivity, which in lay terms m
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