Arctic Animals

There are some spectacular and interesting animals in the Arctic. The Arctic is home to a wide variety of wildlife. There are twenty-three species of marine animals in the Arctic waters, and twenty-two different species of mammals living on land.

All of these animals have had to make special adaptations to their living conditions in order to survive in the Arctic. They play an important role for the Inuit living in the Arctic as well.

Adaptations are behavioural or physical changes animals make in order to survive and thrive in a specific environment. In this way, the animals use the environment to their advantage. For example, Arctic animals will fight the cold weather by spending their winter under a protective layer of insulating snow, or will migrate to warmer climes.

Physical Adaptations physical adaptations include such things as having a thick layer of fat or blubber, thick fur or specialized fur. Their fur will change colour to match the seasons to be used as camouflage, so they cannot be seen. Many Arctic animals have large, padded feet to aid them in walking over deep snow and many have specialized circulatory systems so as to reduce any heat loss and thereby protecting their vital organs.

Polar Bears are a good example of how a mammal can adapt to a severe environment such as the Arctic. Polar Bears spend a lot of time on sea ice, and have developed physiological changes to combat the harsh elements. The bears have an outer coat of fur that is water-repellent, as well as an undercoat of fur to trap warmth. Small ears and short snouts also minimize heat loss to the cold. Their strong sense of smell helps them to catch wind of their prey (mostly smaller animals), which is useful when food is scarce.

Three adult Polar Bears walking past

Polar bears, Kings of the Arctic
Image © hans-ludwig blohm c.m. mpa

Caribou are another example of an arctic animal that have adapted to its environment.  Caribou have very warm fur that provides insulation to conserve heat. The thick coat is made up of long hollow hair that insulates in the winter and makes it easier for the caribou to swim in summer. Caribou fur adapts to the extreme weather conditions as the shade of their fur changes with summer and winter. The caribou also have a separate circulation system for their legs— their blood, which is up to 10 degrees Celsius colder than the rest of their body, is circulated through their long, skinny legs, in order to reduce the amount of heat lost to the cold.

A male caribou grazing near a lake

Caribou antlers grow forward and the caribou use them in the winter to dig through snow for food
Image © hans-ludwig blohm c.m. mpa

Some of the most important animals are the marine mammals, particularly seals and whales. Seals are a marvellous animal even though it is a mammal it can swim and stay under the water for extended periods of time. For many Inuit it is the most important animal for they eat the meat, dress in its skins and use the bones for a variety of purposes such as tools, as construction material or needles. The blubber, its fat, may be used as fuel. Traditionally, Inuit used every part of the animal.

There are many kinds of seals including the harp seal, the ringed seal, the gray seal and the harbour seal.

Seals are also known as pinnipeds, because they are fin-footed mammals this means that they can use their solid fins as feet and walk on them but also use them to swim.

Seals are found both in northern and southern oceans. On the east coast of Canada there is now an abundance of seals because there are some countries refuse to use the meat or the fur; this is a catastrophic hardship for the Inuit because many places the seals were there only source of income when they were able to sell the skins.

It is estimated that because of the ban which makes it almost impossible to sell the skins, there are now as many as 8 million seals along the east coast of Canada.

Many Inuit feel that this ban on seal skins by western countries is very unjust because Inuit do not go to these countries and impose a ban on their food and clothing there.

The largest pinniped is the elephant seal, and big males can grow to 4–5 metres (13–16 feet) in length and can weigh as much as 4,000 kg. The smallest is the Baikal seal, which reaches about 1.3 metres (4.3 feet) in length and weigh between 60-70 kg. Male seals are known as ‘bulls’ and female seals as ‘cows’.

White coat seals!  Courtesy of Hans Blohm

Seal pup
Image © hans-ludwig blohm c.m. mpa

A truly majestic animal is the whale. There are several kinds such as the blue whale, the sperm whale, the humpback whale, the bowhead whale and the killer whale.

The blue whale is that the largest animal known to have ever existed. It can weigh up to 180 tonnes and grow up to 30 meters long which is a third of the length of an American football field.

It should be noted that some whales have teeth but others have a rather ingenious arrangement with rows of a black substance called baleen. It grows inside the mouth of the whale in rows and have a fringe that filters from the sea water algae and plankton which are the whale’s primary sources of food.

One important thing to note is that some whales have teeth but others have a rather ingenious arrangement with rows of a black substance called baleen. They grow in rows inside the mouth of the whale and have a fringe that catches algae and plankton which are the whale’s primary sources of food. Baleen was one of the main reasons whales were so desirable because baleen can bend (this was in the days before plastic was invented) and so it could be used as stays in corsets or crinolines. The Inuit sometimes also used it to build a roof as there are no trees in the Arctic. The whales were also hunted for their blubber, which until the development of gas or kerosene lamps, lit up most of the lamps in Europe.

Other important arctic animals include: Muskoxen, hares, weasels, foxes, bears, walruses, and porpoises (and more).  Read about them here:

So you can see that Inuit have come to depend on these animals for food, clothing, and shelter made from their pelts.  Inuit have used these the animals to adapt to their own environment in the Arctic.

A beautiful example of the traditional use of wolverine fur to shield against cold Courtesy of Hans Blohm

A beautiful example of the traditional use of wolverine fur to shield against cold
Image © hans-ludwig blohm c.m. mpa