New Neighbors for Polar Bears

Kalluk checks out new neighbor Kaniq.

Last week, a new couple moved into the Polar Bear Plunge neighborhood at the San Diego Zoo: a male and female Arctic fox. They are three years old and absolutely enchanting to get to know. The male is a polar phase, meaning he is completely white in his coloring, and the female is a blue phase, which means she has gray or black mixed with her winter white! We chose their names using the language of the Inuit and their fur colors; our male is Kaniq, or frost, and our female is Isiq, the word for smoke.

The Arctic fox is the smallest carnivore that remains active in the harsh Arctic winter and yet keeps the same body temperature regardless of the outside temperature! They have many adaptations that help with maintaining body heat. The fur of the Arctic fox has the best insulating properties of any mammal, and its feet are completely covered with fur, just like the Arctic hare. It makes perfect sense, then, that their scientific name is Alopex lagopus, or hare-footed fox.

Arctic foxes are opportunistic hunters and eat anything, including berries, birds and eggs, fish, insects, and even small seal pups. Their populations can also be regulated by the population numbers of their summer prey, mostly lemmings and voles. Regular peaks and drops in fox populations mirror rodent populations. Arctic foxes also regularly depend on polar bears for food in icy winters when digging through the ice is not an option. The scraps left by polar bear are a hearty meal for the 8- to 11-pound (3 to 5 kilograms) fox.

Currently, Arctic foxes are not endangered, except on two islands in the Arctic. These populations were overhunted and never rebounded once protections were put in place. But as we all know, the Arctic is changing, and with the warming temperatures, red foxes are moving into the territory of the Arctic fox and thus beginning to limit the habitat of the much smaller and less aggressive species.

We have great hopes that our pair have bred or will breed, and we’ll see kits if not this year, then perhaps next. We have a close watch right now on Isiq, as female Arctic foxes can have up to 20 kits in a litter! Isiq has had kits previously, and each time had eight! Arctic foxes breed in the spring and have a 53- to 54-day gestation, so we should know soon enough if our pair successfully bred this spring! It may seem she is too young, but they reach sexual maturity at around 10 months of age. Life expectancy for Arctic foxes in the wild is only 3 years, but in zoos they can live to 9 or 10!

So what did our terrific trio Chinook, Kalluk, and Tatqiq think when the neighbors moved in? Their noses were up and active immediately. Chinook settled on a carrot pile, not too interested as she’s had foxes as neighbors before and seemed to recognize the pungent “aroma.” Kalluk and Tatqiq, however, have not, and they spent the morning peering over the moat sniffing and watching as Isiq and Kaniq explored their new home, using their great sense of smell to check out the big, fuzzy white bears next door.

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

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