|The bowhead, like many of the larger Arctic marine mammals but unlike most other species of whale, has no dorsal fin, which makes swimming through ice covered waters easier. The whale’s head measures about a third of the length of its body, and its huge mouth contains the longest baleen in the world of whales: up to 14 feet/4m. long and 14 inches/36cm. wide at the base. Each side of the mouth has about 350 baleen plates. The bowhead’s blubber is about 10 inches/25cm. thick, and serves to insulate the body as well as providing a built-in nutrient supply which can enable the whale to go without food for up to six months.
The quantities of baleen and blubber yielded from the bowhead, as well as its slow swimming speed and its tendency to float after death, made it a popular target for whalers in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Dutch, German, Americans and British were the most prolific of the whalers, killing tens of thousands of whales in the Davis Strait and Baffin and Hudson’s bays. The meat, skin and blubber of a captured whale were boiled down on the ship itself for the resulting oil, which was used for lighting and heat. The baleen was made into corsets, brushes, whips and umbrellas, among other things. Commercial whaling ceased in 1912 with the decline in the bowhead population and the advent of alternative means of heating and lighting. Recent studies indicate that there might be about 4,500 bowheads in the Beaufort Sea area, 200 or so in Baffin Bay/Davis Strait, and only about 100 in Hudson’s Bay – that from an estimated population of about 30,000 bowheads in the Arctic as a whole in 1825 (as deduced from whalers’ records). Knowledge of the bowhead’s reproductive rate and migration habits is somewhat sketchy because of the low numbers. Indications are that for every 100 whales, only 1-3 calves are born each year – a substantially lower rate than most other species of whale. However, as most of these statistics are gathered by means of aerial surveys, the dark colour of newborn bowheads and their habit of resting under their mother’s tail may have skewed the counts. As far as migration routes are concerned, the bowheads of the Eastern Arctic seem to congregate in northwestern Baffin Bay for the summer, moving out to the middle of the Davis and Hudson Straits by September-October for the winter season. However, the only place in the Arctic where bowheads are known to congregate in any number is Isabella Bay, a remote fjord on the eastern coast of Baffin Island. Here about 70 bowheads have been known to gather when the ice goes out in August. They use the bay as a sort of playground for their mating rituals, and as a grooming area where they can rub off molting skin on the shallow bottom. Interestingly, Isabella Bay is utterly devoid of killer whales, the bowhead’s most ferocious predator in the 20th century.
As a rule, bowheads seem to do most of their mating in June, July and August. The females carry the calves for 10 months, and give birth in the wintering grounds in March and April. The calf then suckles for about one year.
Major food sources include copepods and pteropods, as well as shrimp, amphipods and other minute marine creatures. It has been calculated that an adult bowhead must eat 1,100-1,300lbs./500-600kg. of these in a single day in order to compensate for the loss of blubber during the lean winter months. Fortunately, the baleen does most of the work: the bowhead eats by skimming through swarms of these creatures with its mouth open and its head partly above water. The baleen traps the food and lets the water flow back out. Bowheads can also dive more than 700 feet into glacial troughs to feed on descending copepods. The length of time spent underwater ranges from 2-20 minutes, and that on or near the surface up to 6 minutes. They swim at an average of 3 miles/5km. per hour. Whalers’ records indicate that in their day bowheads swam in groups of three and four whales, often herding for longer distances. Whales of different age groups kept together, with the young swimming ahead during the migrations. Nowadays, sadly, the bowhead seems to travel alone, although the Isabella whales have been sighted in groups of four or five.
The bowhead has now been protected from commercial whaling for almost 80 years, and from native hunting for 16 years, yet their numbers to be constant, if not dwindling. The bowhead is thus firmly planted on the endangered species list.
The Killer Whale or Orca
Killer whales have a reputation for ferocity unequalled among the cetaceans. They hunt in packs of 3-40 animals, and prey on fish, squid, seabirds, seals and other cetaceans. They dislodge basking seals from ice floes by tipping the floes from below, and attacks on beluga and narwhal are well known. When killer whales are in the vicinity, other marine animals reportedly take shelter among ice floes or in deeper fjords. In addition, beluga and narwhal are sometimes driven close to shore, where they fall easy prey to Inuit hunters. It is possible that the summer distribution of beluga and narwhal is partly controlled by the presence of killer whales.
Killer whales, or orcas from their latin name Orcinus orca, are a shiny black in colour, with distinct white areas on the belly, chin, flank and behind the eye. A grey saddle patch, whose shape is used to identify individuals, is found behind the dorsal fin. They have 10-12 enormous teeth in each half jaw, and a dorsal fin reaching 2m. in height. They are found throughout the world’s oceans but are more abundant in cooler temperate waters. In the Canadian Arctic they are found from Davis Strait to as far north as Lancaster Sound. They also penetrate Hudson’s Bay, and are occasional visitors to the Beaufort Sea. They follow migrating herds of seals and other whales to summering areas, but do not usually arrive until the pack ice has dispersed. They tend to avoid areas of heavy ice due to their large dorsal fin, and avoid the ice-covered Arctic archipelago. October finds them migrating southward again in advance of the new ice cover.
There is little information available on numbers, populations, population structure, etc. Mating is thought to occur from May to July. The gestation period is approximately 16 months and a single calf is born in November or December. Longevity is probably 40-50 years and groups of killer whales are likely cohesive family units.
Seals belong to the order of pinnipeds – or fin-footed animals – together with walruses and sea lions. They are thought to have descended from land animals over many millions of years to become true creatures of the sea with finely streamlined bodies and all four limbs modified into flippers. The true seals are the best adapted for swimming. Their hind flippers are useless on land to which all pinnipeds must return to give birth to their young, and to molt.
Unlike the polar bear or the muskox, seals have very short hair, and must rely entirely on the thick layer of blubber under their skin for protection against the cold. They must maintain a skin temperature that is high enough to prevent freezing and damage to tissues, but low enough to prevent excessive energy drain. Transport of heat from the warm body to the skin is regulated by a finely-tuned blood circulation system. The result is a difference of almost 23.5C/75F between the deep body and skin temperatures. Seals hear in the air about as well as people – even though their ears are generally only a small oval hole. Underwater, their hearing is extremely acute, especially in their ability to discern the direction of the sound. There is considerable evidence that seals, like whales and porpoises, use sonar to find fish and avoid obstacles. There is one story of a blind but otherwise healthy Gray Seal which migrated thousands of miles, year after year, to mate and pup in exactly the same location.
If the seals’ ears provide its sonar, the whiskers provide the radar. These act as highly sensitive antennae, allowing the seal to sense the underwater vibrations of even the tiniest fish or crustacean. Northern phocids have the most luxuriant whiskers of almost any seal group, with 40-50 whiskers along each side of the snout, only to be bested by the walrus, which boasts over 300 whiskers on each side. While all seals use their whiskers as tactile organs to examine a new environment – or a new neighbour – walruses also use theirs as an emotional barometer, expressing curiosity, amiability or displeasure with a series of eloquent twitches.
Seals’ eyes are adapted to see both in and out of the water. The eyeball itself is unusually large for the animal’s size. An elephant seal’s eye, the largest among seals, is slightly over 8cm/3 inches across, about the size of a baseball. They are designed for low light hunting. The pupils, which are scarcely more than vertical slits on land, dilate until they are almost perfectly circular underwater. A silvery layer behind the retina, the tapetum lucidum, amplifies all available light like the reflector on a flashlight. The eyes are protected by upper and lower eyelids, like all other mammals, and by a third eyelid called the nictating membrane, which works like a windshield wiper, wiping the eye of sand and other small particles.
Both the ears and the nostrils of the seal close tightly when the animal is underwater. The nostrils also close automatically during sleep, a useful feature since these animals sleep just below the surface of the water. While sleeping, they surface to breathe every ten or fifteen minutes for young seals, every thirty minutes for adults. Mother seals recognize their young largely by smell, and smell is also used by the males to determine if a cow is ready to mate.
Seals can live over 40 years. Their age can be determined by counting the concentric rings on their teeth.
There are five species of seals found in the Canadian Arctic:
Bearded Seals Erignathus barbatus
Among the largest of the Canadian seals, these are found in shallow Arctic waters all around the Pole, sometimes a long way up river estuaries. Bearded seals average 2.25m/7.5ft in length and 250kg/550lbs in weight. They have dark brown, disproportionately small heads, and glistening white whiskers which resemble beards. They spend most of their time in shallow water, and feed on crustacea, molluscs and bottom-feeding fish. These seals are not gregarious and are seldom found in very large groups. They prefer moving ice floes with open leads between them, or gravel beaches. When on land, they keep their heads close to the water so as to be able to escape quickly if danger threatens. Mating takes place in May and is followed by an 11-month gestation period.
Bearded seals are hunted both for food and for their tough hides. After the skin and blubber have been removed, 70% of the carcass is useable meat. The liver is poisonous due to high concentrations of Vitamin A. The hide is too heavy to be used for clothing, but is a favourite material for footwear, ropes, dog harnesses and kayak coverings. In times past the intestine was used for windows and waterproof clothing.
Ringed Seals Phoca hispida
This is the most common northern seal, living throughout the Arctic, as far north as the North Pole and as far south as the Gulf of St. Lawrence. They prefer fjords and bays where the ice is firm, although the younger seals are found further out at the edge of the fast ice. After the April pupping season and with the onset of summer temperatures, the seals tend to lie out on the ice, basking, moulting and fasting. During the winter they use the claws of their flippers to open breathing holes in the ice – sometimes maintaining these holes in ice over 2m. thick. A small ice dome, only about 4cm. high, with a small hole on the top is all you can see of the breathing hole from the surface – the hole widens out under the ice in a cone shape. They do not migrate, but spend the winter diving for food, primarily shrimp-like crustaceans and polar cod. They themselves are the staple diet of polar bears and Arctic foxes.
Ringed seals average 68kg/149lbs in weight and are usually somewhat less than 1.5m/5ft long. Adult colouring is a brown to blueish-black on the back with irregular cream-coloured rings. The belly is white to creamy yellow. The most valuable furs belong to the year-old seals, known as ‘silver jars.’
Harp Seals Phoca groenlandica
Dwellers of the eastern Canadian Arctic and sub-Arctic, adult harp seals are pale grey in colour with black heads and the characteristic harp-shaped brown patch on their backs. The pups are snow white with the appealing black eyes which appear in every wildlife conservation document. Theirs is naturally the most valuable fur. Adults weigh up to 135kg/300lbs and average about 1.7m/5.5ft in length. They are hunted mainly for their meat, but it seems that the greatest danger to the Harp Seal population is not the hunt for the seal itself, but the decline caused by over fishing of its primary food sources.
Western Atlantic Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina concolor
There are Harbour Seals in the Pacific, the Western Atlantic and the Eastern Atlantic. In general, Harbour Seals prefer shallow coastal waters, and along our route are most likely to be sighted along the eastern coast of Baffin Island and both coasts of southern Greenland. Iceland and the Shetland and Orkney Islands also have important populations.
The Harbour Seal avoids solid ice, and remains where currents or tides prevents its forming. Most are pale grey with off-white bellies and dark spots all over. They weigh an average of 70kg/154lbs and measure about 1.5m/5ft in length.
The pups in the northern latitudes are born in late June/early July and suckle for 3-4 weeks before leaving their mother’s side to join other groups of pups. Herring and flounder are their foods of choice.
Hooded Seal Cystophora cristata
The largest seals in Arctic waters, the male Hooded Seal can be up to 3m/10ft long and 450kg/992lbs in weight. Their most striking feature is the presence in the adult male of an enlargement of the nasal cavity to form an inflatable crest or hood on top of the head. When not inflated the hood is slack and wrinkled, with the tip hanging down in front of the mouth. During the pupping and mating seasons, or when the animal feels threatened, or seemingly just for the fun of it, the hood is inflated and can reach up to twice the size of a football. The hood begins to form when the male seal is about four years old. Hooded Seals also have an odd little red balloon that they can inflate out of their left nostrils.
They are concentrated in the eastern Arctic, and on our route will likely be sighted in the Davis Strait, off Baffin Island and along the coast of Greenland. Their coats are blueish-grey with irregular dark brown spots. The pups are born in late March, and have furrier ‘blue-black’ pelts, much sought after for use in clothing.
The Polar Bear
“To me, the wild polar bear is the Arctic incarnate. When watching one amble across the pack ice, looking about and periodically sniffing the wind, there is an overwhelming sense that it belongs here. The Arctic is not a forsaken wasteland to a polar bear; it is home, and a comfortable home at that.”
The polar bear is the largest living land-based carnivore in the world. The hide of an adult male can reach nearly 11ft./3.5m. in length – about the same as a compact car. The largest males can weigh up to 1800lbs./800kg. – a fair bit bigger than the largest grizzly. Its shape, with a streamlined head and body, reflects its adaptation to swimming, and accounts for its Latin or scientific name, Ursus maritimus, or ‘bear of the sea.’ The front legs and paws do the paddling, and the hind legs serve as a rudder. In fact, the polar bear is so much a creature of the sea that, in the United States, it is protected by marine mammal legislation, which also covers whales and seals.
Polar bears are also built for the cold. Their coarse outer fur is made up of translucent hairs which allow ultraviolet radiation in. The fur also serves as a wet suit, trapping heat while the bear swims. Thick, insulating hairs surround their paws, and small, rounded ears minimize heat loss. A dense, woolly underfur provides added insulation to the body, as does a layer of fat up to 10cm/4 inches thick under their black skin.
All these features work perfectly in the winter, but in the summer they become problematic: overheated bears may die of heat prostration, especially if they overexert themselves. To compensate, polar bears pant like dogs, losing heat through the black skin of their tongue and lips, and through their ears, footpads and snouts. Polar bears have a relatively low reproductive rate: females do not reach sexual maturity until 4-6 years of age, and then breed only every third or fourth year. Males reach sexual maturity between the ages of 5 and 10. The common litter size is two cubs, but only 30-50% reach the age of two, and by certain estimates, only one bear in ten will live to the ripe old age of 25 and fulfill its life expectancy.
Polar bear mating season is in May. At that time, the egg implanted in the female is fertilized, but does not in fact begin to form a foetus until September, and then only if the bear is healthy. A pregnant polar bear will dig a maternity den in a heavy snowbank on land towards the end of October in anticipation of her cubs’ arrival in December. Young females often build their dens in the area in which they themselves were born. Other male or female adults occasionally build dens for shelter during the worst of the winter weather. During pregnancy the bears fast for up to 8 months, absorbing the nutrients from their own body fat. By March, the polar bear family emerges from its den and moves onto the sea ice. The cubs will stay with their mother for at least 2 1/2 years, until they have learned to fend for themselves, but some stay as long as 4 years. The spring is the polar bears’ most active time, and it is largely devoted to the seal hunt.
By far the most important prey for polar bears is the ringed seal, although they will also eat bearded, harp and hooded seals, as well as walruses, beluga whales and narwhals. They often catch the seals by ‘still hunting’, which involves lying next to a seal breathing hole in the ice, waiting for a seal to emerge. Once the victim pops its head out, the bear uses its massive canine teeth and large, well-clawed forepaws to grab it. Or they might swim underwater close to the edge of open leads, surfacing at the spot where they think a seal might be poised to dive in. They also use their keen sense of smell to stalk seals across the ice and sniff out seal dens (‘aglus’) to kill the pups within. Bears have even been observed using chunks of ice as a tool to kill seals or even walruses. The most nutritionally valuable part of the seal to the polar bear is the blubber (fat). So much so that the bears sometimes leave the rest of the seal carcass uneaten. These are generally promptly devoured by the arctic foxes which trail the bears for this very reason. Polar bears can eat as much as 10lbs./4.5kg. of seal fat and meat a day. They can travel great distances over land or ice, and can swim up to 80 miles/135k. at sea. Bears with their cubs have been seen on the offshore pack ice in the middle of Baffin Bay, 200 miles/335km. off the coast of Baffin Island.
Polar bears spend their summers on the fast ice or they may land at traditional retreats to den in the remaining snowbanks or loaf about on shore. With a successful spring hunt, they have a good stock of fat and generally don’t need much to eat. They may fast or may occasionally eat sea birds (mainly waterfowl), eggs, small rodents, grasses, berries, mosses, algae and even seaweed. They will also eat carrion, particularly whale carcasses, and garbage in camps or settlements. The one thing they do not usually eat is fish.
In the fall, as the ice forms, the bears will move off the land and onto the ice, leaving the pregnant females to dig their dens. The seal hunt begins again and continues through the winter.
Polar bears are not naturally aggressive against humans, but will attack if they feel threatened. Worldwide, there are an estimated 30,000 polar bears of which about half live in Canadian territory. Theirs is not an endangered species, but is nonetheless highly protected by wildlife conservation legislation. In Canada, only Inuit and Indians are legally allowed to hunt polar bears, and they do so within an overall quota system. In the Northwest Territories, a limited number of hunting tags are distributed to communities each year. Native hunters may allow some of their tags to be used by a non-native person on an Inuit-guided polar bear hunt. The price for polar bear hides is $1,000 – $2,500 USD, whereas the guided hunts can fetch $18,000 – $20,000 USD each for the resident with the polar bear tag. The incentive is obviously there, but there is a good deal of honour and tradition is still associated with killing a polar bear, so the practice remains limited. There is a certain irony in that these guided sporting hunts tend to be much less successful than the native hunts, and since the tag cannot be reused after an unsuccessful non-native hunt, the net effect is a reduction of the number of bears killed and a healthy injection of funds into the community.
Walruses belong to the same order as seals and sea lions. All three are called ‘pinnipeds’, which refers to their webbed, fin-like feet. But although there are many species of seals and sea lions in the world, there is only one species of walrus, with two subspecies: the Atlantic walrus and the Pacific walrus. Both are found in the Arctic, although on our journey we will meet only the Atlantic type (the Pacific walrus favours the shores of eastern Russia and Alaska).
The adult male walrus may weigh up to 1,400kg., with a length of 3.6m. Males have a more massive neck and chest area than the females, which at 900kg. and 3m. are somewhat smaller overall. Walruses have bulky bodies with many folds and wrinkles, and a sparse covering of light brown hair which is molted every summer and thins with old age. The skin is generally a cinnamon to light grey tone – the lighter, the older. They have small heads with long whiskers or vibrissae (10-12cm.). Both males and females have tusks, which are large canine teeth protruding from the upper jaw and can grow up to 60 cm. in length.
To protect the walrus against the rough ice and cold Arctic seas, they are equipped with a thick and tough hide, with a heavy layer of blubber underneath for insulation. In addition to this, walruses have a built-in thermo-regulation system: when the animal is warm, its blood is shunted to the outer skin and blubber, allowing it to cool off. When immersed in water, the blood is kept away from the skin and blubber, thereby conserving vital body heat.
The whiskers or vibrissae of the walrus are used to sense food organisms on the sea bottom, and together with excellent hearing and smell, they compensate for the animal’s poorly developed sight. Through oral suction they remove the siphons and feet of clams and mussels, and extract the soft bodies of snails from their shells. Their principal prey are bivalve molluscs, but walrus also take various sea worms, crabs, fish and squid if their preferred food is scarce. Older rogue males have also been known to feed on seals, which they have either killed or found dead.
The tusks seem to have a social function, most likely as a symbol of rank, and are not, contrary to popular belief, used to dig up clams. The larger the tusks and body, the higher the animal usually is in the hierarchy. This is especially important in the summer haul-out or sunning areas (called uglit) to obtain the choice spots. Both males and females use their tusks in aggressive displays and to defend themselves and their calves. In addition, they are used to break breathing holes in the ice, and to assist in hauling themselves around on ice.
In water, walruses are quick and agile and can attain speeds of 10km. an hour. They can travel long distances, dive to 100m. and have even been found asleep while afloat. On land, however, they are slow and ungainly, moving with a shuffling, humping motion. Their tendency for this reason is to stay close to the water’s edge once ashore. Land uglit can number several hundred animals, and even when sunning themselves on ice pans, many groups will likely be present in the same area.
Female walruses reach sexual maturity at age 4, males at 6. The males are polygamous, and form loose harems during the breeding season in April and May. Gestation is around 376 days, and results in a single calf born on the ice. The calves stay with the mother for up to 3 years. During the first of these they are entirely fed on milk and are not weaned until the latter part of the second year. The females will generally mate every year, but become less fertile with age.
Walruses migrate in winter to find open water. Those which summer in northern Baffin Bay follow the pack ice south in the fall to the eastern shores of Davis Strait. Wherever they go, they must keep within suitable feeding areas, meaning a water depth of not more than 100m.
Walruses have two enemies: killer whales and polar bears. Even they have a hard time eating their catch, for walrus hide is so tough to penetrate that it makes the meal hardly worth the effort. A third enemy is ice, and the animals have been known to freeze or starve to death as a result of their breathing holes freezing over. If an Atlantic walrus manages to avoid these hazards, it may live to the ripe old age of 28. Northern people have hunted walrus for its meat as well as its hide, which was – and is – used to make shelters and boats. The ivory from the tusks was also a marketable commodity, although to a limited extent. The walrus is not considered to be an endangered species. Current regulations restrict residents to killing four walruses a year for their own use. Anyone else must have a license. A marine mammal export license is required to transport any part of a walrus, including the tusks, out of the Arctic.
The Arctic Fox
The Arctic fox is a member of the canid family which includes wolves, dogs and other foxes. Its scientific name, Alopex lagopus, translates as ‘hare-footed fox’, referring to the dense fur on its feet which is similar to the fur on the foot of a hare. This extra fur provides insulation against the cold, as does it thick winter coat with its underfur and long guard hairs. It is a small animal, normally weighing 2.5-5kg. and measuring 65-85 cm. in length. The female, or vixen, is slightly smaller than the male.
The Arctic fox is the only canid which changes the colour of its coat in summer. The back, tail, legs and head are brown, and the sides and belly are blond. The summer coat allows the fox to blend into the tundra vegetation, and lasts only during July and August. There are two winter colour phases of the Arctic fox: white and blue. The blue coat varies from grey to dark blue-black. The different colour phases may occur within the same litter and the proportion of each colour phase varies geographically. The white phase is the most prevalent in the Arctic.
Distribution-wise, the Arctic fox is virtually circumpolar. In Canada it lives as far north as the higher Arctic islands, and as far south as the treeline – occasionally even venturing into the boreal forest if food is scarce. Each fox has its own range, which varies in size from 3-25km2, but they are very mobile animals with some recorded as having travelled over 2,000km.
They feed primarily on lemmings, voles, ptarmigans, Arctic hares and carrion. In winter, the lemmings must be sniffed out in their tunnels under the snow, and in full darkness. The fox relies on its very acute sense of smell, as well as its speed and agility in pouncing on the animal once located. They are certainly not above feeding on animal carcasses, such as seals, or stealing eggs and young from seabirds’ nests. Foxes cache food in times of plenty to tide themselves over when the food supply disappears. In late winter, Arctic foxes seek dens in which to raise their young. The dens are usually dug in gently sloping, sandy soil near rivers or lakes or on elevated areas free of permafrost. They have complex underground tunnels with numerous entrances, and may expand the tunnel system year after year if they return to the same den. The foxes are sexually mature after about 10 months of age, after which they breed each year in March or April. One litter is produced each season after a gestation period of 51 days. On average, 6 pups are born between mid-May and mid-June. The newborn pups are tiny and utterly helpless. Yet after only 3-4 weeks, they emerge from the den and are weaned at about 6 weeks. By mid-August they are independent and are abandoned first by the male fox and then by the vixen.
Wolves are a member of the Canidae (dog) family and look like a large husky dog. Adult males average about 35-40kg., while females are smaller at about 30-35kg. From the tip of the nose to the end of the tail a male wolf will measure 1.5-2m. and a female 1.4-1.8m. The tail is nearly one-quarter of the total length. The largest wolves in Canada live in the northwest, and the smallest are found on the Arctic islands. Their territory once covered the whole of Canada, including the Maritimes, but it is now limited to the unpopulated areas of the mainland and to the Arctic. Although relatively abundant, their exact numbers are unknown. In the N.W.T., Nunavut and Nunavik there are three different groups of wolves: those which live below the treeline (timber wolves), those which live on the Arctic islands (Arctic wolves), and those which travel above and below the treeline (tundra or caribou wolves).
Wolf colour varies from pure white to black, with accompanying shades of cream and brown. White is the most common colour on the Arctic islands, while on the mainland the majority of the wolf population is grey or darker. The coat is composed of long, coarse guard hairs with a short, soft underfur. Northern wolves shed their coats once, in the late spring.
One of the most interesting aspects of wolf behaviour is howling. Howling may be a wolf’s message to pack members of its whereabouts. A howl may summon a pack to a nightly hunt, or adult wolves may howl to find a lost pup. It may also be that wolves howl simply for the pleasure of it, alone or in groups, when it can sound like deliberate harmonizing.
Another well-known wolf characteristic is their tendency to form packs, which may contain from 2-16 members, although 4-7 is the most common. Large groups of 30-40 wolves have been recorded. Together, the wolf pack will travel, hunt, breed, raise pups, and in most cases maintain a certain area as their home territory. Territories are marked out by scent posts such as rocks, stumps, ice chunks or any conspicuous objects which can be marked by urine. Pack members are usually close relatives – generally one set of parents, their pups and an aunt or uncle or two. The social structure of the pack is complex and tightly knit, with each member knowing its rank or position. Throughout the winter, wolf packs are on the move, travelling many kilometres, feeding where they find prey and resting when they are tired, or when extreme weather causes them to seek refuge. Wolves find travelling in deep snow difficult, and will follow paths, roads or snowmobile tracks whenever possible.
Wolves are predators of large game, and in the Arctic this restricts their diet largely to muskoxen and caribou. They may also take hares, foxes, birds, fish, eggs or even small quantities of grass. In their hunt for large game – animals usually larger than themselves – wolves have had to develop rather sophisticated means of catching their prey. Muskoxen defend themselves by charging and hooking at the wolf with their horns or kicking their hooves. They also adopt a unique semi-circular defence formation. Faced with this, the wolf will circle the group, attempting to break up the formation or scare out individual animals. If the muskoxen are calm and well-organized enough to maintain their formation, the wolf will eventually give up. But any muskox that separates itself from the formation is liable to fall prey.
Arctic wolves mate in late March. A gestation period of 60-65 days follows, producing litters of 4-7 pups by early June. The pregnant female will start digging a den about 6 weeks before the birth of her pups, completing it in about 3 weeks. Old dens are frequently reused, and old fox dens are often usurped and enlarged. Most are burrows in sandy soil, although rock caves or sandy surface beds are also used. Dens usually face south, are situated near water and in a high area which can serve as a lookout. A wolf might have several dens in the same area.
Feeding the pups occupies much of the adults’ time during the summer. Adults may travel as far as 25-30km. to bring back food, which they either carry in their mouths or swallow and regurgitate. When the pups are about 2 months old, the family may leave the den for a ‘loafing spot’, where the wolves will feed, rest and play until the pups are old enough to travel.
Usually in each wolf pack, one pair is dominant and it is normally these two which mate. In some cases, more than one female will have pups, in which case the pack may split into separate packs. Other pack members may care for the pups, taking turns feeding and babysitting them. As wolves become adults and are sexually mature, rivalry for mates may cause the pack to split. It is unusual for a wolf to live alone for long – despite the term ‘lone wolf’ – and single wolves normally join or form new packs.
The Arctic hare inhabits the tundra regions, from Newfoundland west to the Mackenzie Delta, and north to the tip of Ellesmere Island. In the High Arctic, these animals retain their white coats all year, and band together in groups which can include up to 200 individuals. In winter, they dig dens in snowy drifts.
As a means of conserving heat, they rest by hunching over and sitting on their well-furred hind legs, thereby making themselves fairly wind-proof and keeping their body away from the cold ground. When alarmed, they rise up on their hind legs, then bound off, hopping upright at speeds up to 30 miles an hour.
Adult hares are preyed upon largely by wolves, but the young animals are picked off by foxes, snowy owls and gyrfalcons.
Lemmings are herbivores the size of small rats which are especially well adapted to life in the tundra. Wintering in the warmth and protection of snow burrows, they breed almost continuously in favourable conditions, producing four or five litters per year, each with up to six young. Two or three years of good weather can cause a population explosion. When their numbers reach a level where the local food supply is insufficient, the population rapidly collapses. A few lemmings migrate successfully, but most die of starvation and disease. This population cycle tends repeat itself every four years. Larger mammals, such as Arctic hares, have a similar but longer lasting cycle (11 years in the case of hares).
Their predators include snowy owls and foxes, who naturally gorge themselves during population peaks. Lemmings themselves feed on vegetation of all kinds.
Birds of Prey
Birds of prey, or raptors, are the hunters of the bird world. They typically have large, strong feet with which they seize and kill their prey, as well as powerful, strongly hooked beaks which are used to tear the prey into bite-sized chunks. Hawks, eagles, osprey and falcons are diurnal or daytime hunters and rely upon their keen eyesight to spot prey.
The only characteristic distinguishing males from females within these species is size. The male is usually about one-third smaller than the female, and for this reason is called a tiercel. Selection of mates often occurs at nesting sites. The same pair will return year after year to the same sites and frequently to the same nest. These nesting sites are known as eyries. The eggs once laid require 30-45 days to hatch, and then the young birds stay in the nest for a minimum of 30 days. The parents take turns incubating the eggs, feeding the young and defending the nest.
The vulnerability of the eggs and young birds over such a long period of time requires that the eyrie be situated in a location where it is invisible or inaccessible to most predators, and that the time spent searching for food be kept to a minimum.
Gyrfalcon Falco rusticolus
Gyrfalcons are the world’s largest falcons (50-63cm/19.5-25in tall with a 1.2m/4ft wingspan). The colour of their plumage varies from dark grey in their southern territories to light grey or white in eastern N.W.T. and on the Arctic islands. No nest is built. Instead, 2-4 eggs are laid and incubated by the female on a narrow cliff ledge, or in the stick nests of other species. Gyrfalcons nest in May in their northern range. The same nesting ledge is frequently reused year after year, or a breeding pair may alternate ledges within a small area. The ‘eyasses’ fledge about 47 days after hatching. During the fall and winter, the immatures and some adults wander south as far as 45 degrees in search of ptarmigan concentrations. Other adult gyrfalcons remain close to their nesting area, feeding on overwintering ptarmigan flocks or hares. The number of gyrfalcons and the nesting success vary in response to the prey available.
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus
The grey to brown plumage and striking black sideburns against a white face differentiate the smaller (40-50cm/16-19in tall) peregrine falcon from the gyrfalcon. Ledges and hawk nests on cliffs adjacent to water bodies are used for nesting. In some places, the same cliff face has been used by successive pairs of peregrine falcons for over 200 years. Two to four eggs are laid in a shallow scrape in May or June, and incubation lasts for about a month. The eyasses begin to fly at 39 days.
The most northerly populations of peregrines migrate in the fall to the southwestern US and the coastal regions of Mexico.
Peregrines prey almost exclusively on other birds, but may take smaller mammals, amphibians and even insects. The final moments of a peregrine’s hunt can be a spectacular sight: Wings folded, the bird dives, often from great height, and uses its feet to stun its airborne quarry, knocking it onto the ground in a flurry of feathers.
Peregrine falcons in North America experienced a decline in numbers primarily from the effects of ingesting DDT-contaminated prey. In response to the decline, several breeding programs were established, and studies during the 1980′s have indicated that in the N.W.T. population levels and production of peregrines are now at healthy levels. Apparently populations here experienced the effects of DDT and other pollutants to a much lesser degree than elsewhere.
Black-bellied Plover Pluvialis squatarola
This bird spends its summers in the lowland tundra north of the tree line, and winters in the mudflats and estuaries of the US and Central America. Its summer range extends throughout the Arctic, including Siberia.
In summer, its black underparts reach down to the belly, and are separated from the silvery gray and black upperparts by a broad band of pure white. Its cry is a mournful ‘tlee-oo-ee’. It is a larger and stouter bird than the Golden Plover, which has a more southerly summer range. It nests in a scrape on mossy ground, laying four grey eggs in late June. The chicks are fledged by the end of August. The Black-bellied Plover eats worms and intertidal vertebrates.
Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula
A small, rotund, lively shorebird, it has a prominent black collar, a brown back and crown and a black face and forehead. The legs are orangy-yellow and the bill is orange with a black tip. The cry is a rather disconcerting ‘peee-u’, but its song, a trilling ‘tooli-tooli-tooli’ is more distinctive.
This plover breeds on shingly or sandy seashores, where it eats molluscs and insects.
Red Phalarope Phalaropus fulicaria
This species of phalarope arrives at the edge of the pack ice by late May or June, having spent the winter well south of the Equator in Chile. Its stay in the Arctic is short: the females return to the south after the eggs have hatched – the first half of July – with the males and juveniles following in late July and August.
In the summer, its breeding plumage is a distinctive reddish-chestnut colour in the underparts, black and white wings, prominent white cheeks and a black-tipped yellow bill. Its winter plumage is mainly white. Its call is a whistling ‘wit’. It nests in the marshy tundra surrounding the islands, usually where there are pools with muddy shore lines.
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
The rocky coastal islands of the Arctic are the nesting ground for this long-distance traveller, which winters along the coasts of all the warm continents. It has a distinctive cry, ‘trik-tuc-tuc-tuc’, and a very contrasted black, white and chestnut plumage on its upperbody. The lower breast and belly are pure white. The legs are orange-red and the short beak is black.
The turnstone’s name comes from its habit of flicking over shoreline debris and turning shells and stones over to get at food.
Purple Sandpiper Calidris maritima
This species of sandpiper never travels more than about 100 miles from its breeding area, which extends from the Canadian islands to Siberia, Iceland and upland Scandinavia. Most of the Canadian birds winter on the northeast coast of North America, but some are found around the Great Lakes.
This is a dark-plumaged, stocky bird with a long, yellow-based drooping bill and short yellow legs. The belly is whitish, flecked with grey, the upper parts dark brown and black. The purple hue which gives the bird its name appears in winter on the upper parts. The Purple Sandpiper feeds on small molluscs, crustaceans, algae and insects. Its nest is a small cup shaped out of the tundra vegetation, where it lays its eggs in June.
Baird’s Sandpiper Calidris bairdii
A smaller bird (5.5-6.5 in), this species of Sandpiper has an unusual migration route that is well inland and concentrated along the backbone of the continents – the Rockies and the Andes. Birds begin to leave their winter quarters in March, passing over Central America without stopping and moving northwards through the interior of North America in April and May. After breeding, the adults leave the Arctic in late July/early August and travel southwards west of Hudson’s Bay to the American prairies. Here they feed up for five weeks of non-stop flight, covering 4,000 miles in a great circle over the Pacific to the southern Andes.
Tier nests are made in exposed scrapes in short tundra vegetation, usually high up. They eat small invertebrates, plus spiders and insects. Their summertime plumage is a mealy looking mixture of buff, black and grey, with a white belly. The black beak is straight and long. The call is a low, raspy, trilling ‘preet’ or ‘kreep’.
Sanderling Calidris alba
Brilliant white during the winter, the Sanderling’s summer plumage comprises a bright chestnut colouring on the head, upper breast and upper parts, with the belly remaining white and the mantle and scapulars acquiring a grey and chestnut flecking. It has black legs and a short straight bill. The bird’s cry is a ‘twick’ sound.
It’s a fast and erratic flyer, wintering on the coasts along the whole of the US and South America, and summering on Ellesmere Island and the northern coast of Greenland. The eastern population summers in Siberia and travels to Africa and Australia for the winter. Sanderling nests are found on flat tundra, usually near water, where it feeds on plant buds, flies, seeds, burrowing amphipods, algae and mosses. The eggs are laid in June.
Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea
This bird breeds in the Arctic and winters in the Southern Hemisphere – often as far south as Antarctica. Their migration route takes birds bred in Canada across the Atlantic and south along the coasts of Europe and Africa – possibly the longest migration route of any bird. Long lived, one Arctic Tern banded in Norway died there 27 years later. The Arctic Tern has a pale back with grey underparts and a deeply forked tail. Its bill is long and very pointed, designed for spear-fishing. The legs are short, and the bird has difficulty walking.
The Fulmar is a member of a large family, which also includes shearwaters and petrels. All members are characterized by their external nostrils, situated in a horny sheath lying along the top of the upper mandible. But unlike many family members, the Fulmar is a bold and aggressive bird, well able to defend itself and its eggs against predatory gulls and skuas. There are enormous Fulmar colonies in the Arctic, where hundreds of thousands of birds make their nests on cliffs and the flat tops of islands. The female lays one or two white eggs which are incubated by both parents in shifts. The young fledge in 3-5 months, and defend themselves by discharging oil from the mouth. Fulmars are oceanic birds, using the land mainly for breeding. They feed on the surface of the water, either in flight or after landing, and catching mainly plankton, fish and squid. They may also take other birds as well as offal and refuse.
Common Murre Uria lomvia
Murres are sleek black and white birds, about 45cm/17 inches long and 21kg/2 lbs. in weight. It has a sharply pointed beak and short, narrow wings adapted for manoeuvring underwater during a dive. About 5 1/2 million Thick-billed Murres (members of the Alcidae family and called ‘turrs’ in Newfoundland) winter around the shores of Newfoundland, which may seem an enormous number, but in fact the bird is threatened with extinction: Next to the Mallard Duck, the Murre is Canada’s most sought-after game bird, harvested at a rate of 750,000 birds a year. Moreover, the birds have a slow reproduction rate. They do not reach sexual maturity until their 5th year, after which a breeding female only produces one egg each year. Murres are fish eaters and are almost entirely self sufficient on the open ocean, where they flock in large rafts. Late in March, they come to land to nest and rear their young, forming great colonies on rocky cliffsides near the sea.
Found on all seas and oceans of the world, shearwaters are great migrators. Some of the fifty or more species probably travel farther in a year than any other living creature. Their name reflects their habit of skimming low over the water along the troughs of giant waves and sweeping up over the crests almost effortlessly. Under calm seas, they typically flap their powerful wings rapidly a few times to gain momentum, then stiffen the wings to sail into a controlled glide. Shearwaters can walk on the water for feeding, partially folding their wings into airfoils for balance. In the Antarctica some species are known as whalebirds since, like whales, their preferred food is krill, and the old time whalers knew that they would likely find their quarry near a cluster of shearwaters. Like other pelagic seabirds, shearwaters secrete large quantities of oil from special glands lining the stomach. The oil serves as a means of defence (they spit it at enemies), as food for the young, and as a dressing for their plumage. Discharged through the nostrils, it may also serve to rid the bird of excess sea salt. The oil gives the birds an unpleasant musky, iodine-like smell.
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla
One of the most graceful and buoyant of gulls in flight, the Kittiwake is probably the most pelagic of all, travelling far from its nesting area outside the breeding season. The young often travel even further afield than the adult birds. Their colonies are large and characterized by a raucous din and the white splashes surrounding every nesting site. The smallest rock projection, often impossibly situated, serves as a base for the Kittiwake’s nest of seaweed and mud. The adults are equipped with the longest claws of any gull in order to cope with their surroundings and, as one wrong step would be fatal, the adolescent Kittiwakes are among the best-behaved of all young birds. Researchers have exchanged Kittiwake young for the young of the ground-nesting Black-headed Gull to test the strength of this instinctive behaviour. Within minutes, the Black-headed Gull chicks stepped from the ledge and fell – saved by nets in this case. Kittiwakes feed mainly on fish and zooplankton, plunging in the manner of terns and sometimes submerging completely.
Jaegers and Skuas Stercoraiidae
These birds play the role of a sea-hawk, using their webbed toes, sharp, curved talons and long beaks with hawk-like hooked tips. They tend to be brownish in colour, some with almost white underparts.
There are four species in this family, of which three are called jaegers (after the German jager, a hunter) and are of circumpolar distribution, and the fourth is a skua. There is a good deal of overlap between the two, however, and Parasitic Jaegers (Stercorarius parasiticus), for example, are just as often called Parasitic or Arctic Skuas.
These birds are rather like gulls in their structure, but are more powerful and robust. They are also able to manoeuvre more deftly in the air, and typically will pursue another bird until, through harassment, they force it to disgorge whatever food it holds in its crop. Piratical, they are steal food from other birds, as well as their eggs and chicks. Weakened land birds and exhausted migrators are typical prey, but these birds are not above scavenging carrion.
Jaegers and skuas breeding in the Arctic tend to have large territories. Their nests occasionally appear in colonies, but if so they are widespread. The success of the breeding season coincides with the population peaks of the smaller rodents.
Snowy Owl Nyctea scandiaca
This beautiful large white owl lives in the Arctic and is seen in southern Canada and the northern USA in winter every four years or so, in a cycle that coincides with the population levels of the lemming. In normal years, the Snowy Owl is able to take enough lemmings, its principal food, to sustain itself, but in those years where the lemming population declines abruptly, the owl wanders south in search of alternative quarry. The Snowy is a diurnal or daytime owl, and is quite easily approached. Its flight is rather jerky, for its upward wingbeat is slower than the downbeat. It also glides for short distances. It is easily seen, not only because of its bright white plumage, but also because of its habit of perching in exposed places. Females and young birds have varying degrees of horizontal black bars on front and back. The face and legs are heavily feathered, right down to the tips of the claws. The eyes are a striking yellow. It croaks, like a raven, and whistles piercingly.
Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis
The Snow Bunting spends the winter in southern Canada and the northern USA, seldom travelling south of areas where snow is present. A sparrow, the bunting is the whitest of all songbirds, with only small black patches on its wings and back during its breeding period in the Arctic.
These birds move about in large flocks, feeding on the seeds of grasses and weeds sticking up through the snow. A constant twittering sound can be heard while they are in flight. They build their nests in cracks in the rocks and under stones. On their breeding grounds their song is quite loud and warbling.
Not surprisingly, the Arctic’s harsh environment supports a relatively small number of plant species. It is interesting, however, that all the major plant categories are represented here, and visitors are generally astonished at the wealth of plant material – once they have learned to look down at the ground level and appreciate the plants’ miniaturized scale. You may be surprised at the number of plants you recognize, including dandelions, chamomile daisies, buttercups and so on. For botanists tell us that there are no true Arctic plant species, since Arctic conditions have only existed for a million or so years – not long enough in evolutionary terms for true Arctic plants to have developed.
There are about 200 species of flowering plants in the Baffin Region, and an even greater number of mosses and lichens. This despite the poor Arctic soils, which are usually acidic and low in nitrogen. Add to that the fact that permafrost or bedrock are never far from the surface, so that not only is the soil poor, but the plants must eke out a living in a scant few inches of it. On the other hand, the permafrost has the effect of retaining moisture in the upper layers of the soil – a crucial benefit in a region of such low precipitation.
The lack of nutrients in the Arctic environment means that plant life will visibly cluster wherever nutrients of any kind are available. Animal dens, old campsites and bird roosts are thus easier to spot because of the relatively luxuriant growth which occurs in these places due to the nitrogenous waste matter left behind. Bladder campions (Silene sp.), mountain sorrel (Oxyria digyna), mouse ear chickweed (cerastium sp.) or stitchwort (Stellaria sp.) are often the most abundant here.
And then there’s the climate. Surviving the winter is the easy part for these plants – Arctic species can be completely frozen one minute and thawed the next as if nothing happened, a phenomenon which continues to baffle scientists. Actually, it’s the daunting task of growing, replenishing food supplies, flowering and producing a seed in the extraordinarily short and cool span of summer that is the most trying. The wind, too, presents a hazard. It affects the plants by drying, flailing and especially by pelting them with particles of sand and snow.
In spite of the difficult conditions, there is enough vegetation in the Arctic to support herds of caribou, muskoxen (on Ellesmere Island), lemmings, Arctic hares – in fact, the entire base of the Arctic food chain.
Plants form a small but significant part of the traditional Inuit diet as well – after a long winter diet of meat and animal fat, fresh greens were a welcome change, although they were never eaten in any quantities. Inuit would simply eat plants as they came upon them, or gather them to add to a pot of stewed seal, or mix fresh green blueberry leaves into a salad dressing of seal blood and oil. Berries were sometimes preserved in oil for use during the winter months. Other plants were used strictly for their medicinal qualities: Mushrooms, for instance, were not eaten but were collected for their antibiotic properties in preventing infection in cuts and wounds; Willows were collected for the salicilin they contain (the principal ingredient in Aspirin).
The first plants to appear in the spring – even before the snow melts – are the willow catkins. While air temperatures are still cool – too cold for normal plant growth – the sun is high above the horizon and there is already 24-hour sunlight. The hairs of the pussy willows are transparent, conducting the sunlight right down the hair shaft to the body of the catkin below, and warming it to several degrees above air temperature. The hairs then trap the warmth and act as insulators. Similar devices are used by many other plants in the Arctic.
Next to appear is the purple saxifrage. Yellow cinquefoils appear between protective leaves of the Lapland Rosebay, yielding a sweet scent. The early summer hails tundra ‘meadows’ carpeted in pale cream-coloured flowers, the mountain aven, which grow alongside Arctic heather, Arctic poppies, and diapensia.
If you must collect plants, be considerate. Never remove all the flowers from a single plant, and never pull up a plant by its roots – you may be disturbing hundreds of years of growth.
Arctic Heather Cassiope tetragona
An untidy looking plants, whose leaves are pressed so closely to the stem that the pairs of opposite leaves give the impression that the stem is braided. The flowering stems are about 2cm long, and extend from leaf axils. At the end is a delicate, drooping white bell, somewhat like the flower of a lily-of-the-valley. It’s a creeping plant, and if you pull it out from the base, a great sheet of shrub will come away from the tundra with it. The Inuit used to gather it to use primarily for building fires (no wood available), but also for mattresses in their summer tents and as insulation in the walls of their qammaqs. The Inuktitut name for Arctic heather is qijuktaat, which means wood that is ready to be gathered. A high resin content in the stems and leaves makes the plants burn readily, generating a very hot flame.
Labrador Tea Ledum paulustre
Appearing in the Arctic in a much smaller version than elsewhere, this plant is a key ingredient in many traditional medicines as well as providing an excellent hot drink when brewed like tea.
Mosses and Lichens
Most of the soil in the Arctic is blanketed in a layer of mosses and lichens through which other herbaceous and shrubby plants grow. By crowding together for protection, these plants create their own micro-climate where the temperature within the mass of vegetation is higher than the air temperature, allowing photosynthesis and metabolism to take place.
Lichens are, in fact, not a single plant but a symbiotic association of algae and fungi cells living together to make the best of the most difficult locations. On a bleak rock face, the fungal cells will secrete enzymes to dissolves from the rock while the algal cells use photosynthesis to create food. Map lichen (Rhizocarpon geographicum) is used by scientists to date rock. Caribou moss, which is really a lichen and not a moss, is a favourite food of caribou.
Mountain Avens Dryas integrifolia
The Inuit call these malikkat because the Aven’s flowers always face the sun and follow it around the sky. The cup-shaped dish formed by the petals acts as a solar collector, concentrating the sun’s rays into the centre of the flower and directing the heat to the reproductive structures – thus speeding seed production. Arctic insects often land on these flowers to warm themselves and replenish their energy levels before flying off into the cool Arctic air. The Arctic avens produce long, fluffy plumes that spiral during the fruiting season – an indicator for the early Inuit that it was time to hunt caribou.
Wintergreen Pyrola grandiflora
These plants have curious tough, round leaves, often with a slight reddish-brown tinge to them. The red pigment is found in many Arctic plants, and absorbs the heat from sunlight, thereby aiding photosynthesis when the air is cool. As the name of the plant suggests, the leaves do not die during the winter but freeze and remain dormant. No time is lost growing new leaves, so that as soon as light and temperature allow, photosynthesis gets under way and this plant is ready to go.
Moss Campion Silene acaulis
If conditions are right, this plant grows in a perfectly round, hemispherical clump. Its tiny leaves become bright green in spring, and soon the whole clump is covered in minuscule pink flowers. Underneath each clump is a substantial taproot which the Inuit used to eat in times of starvation.
Arctic Cotton Eriophorum sp.
Found in the wetter areas of the tundra or at the edge of lakes, this a sedge whose flower heads develop develop beautiful white silky plumes. The Inuit collected the heads and combined them with dried moss to make the wick for their traditional seal oil lamp, the kudliq. It required a full 10 kilo flour sack of cotton heads to supply a single kudliq for one year. The cotton from willow catkins offered an alternative material for the wicks.
Louseworts Pedicularis sp.
A curious plant with tiny flowers which look rather like miniature snapdragons. At the base of the flower tube they produce a supply of nectar which attracts large Arctic bees. The leaves look like small ferns, hence the alternative name, fernweed.
Fireweed Epilobium latifolium
The Arctic variety of this plant is prostrate and can turn hillsides and valleys a bright pink. The young shoots make a delicious salad or can be cooked as a pot herb that tastes like asparagus. The flowers are also edible.
Prickly Saxifrage Saxifraga tricuspidata
A prickly, straggly plant with spiked three-pronged leaves. The pretty white flowers form a bunch at the top of the stem which grows a few centimetres above ground level. The flowers may be eaten, and the whole plant can be brewed up to make a tea which is used to cure aches, pains and upset stomachs.