Researchers at the Norwegian Polar Institute were startled when they saw the data. Satellite tracking devices had been placed on more than 50 Arctic foxes in order to study their patterns of movement, distance, speed and location. Was this an error in the data? If not, how was it possible?
They continued to analyze the data from one particular female Arctic fox. The fox had been wearing this tracking device since early 2017 and the data confirmed it was the only one in the study who had ventured outside of Norway. The animal stayed along the coastline of Norway’s Spitsbergen Island for months but then left the island in March 2018.
Much to the astonishment of the researchers and scientists, the fox had traveled from the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen to Greenland, then onto Ellesmere Island which is part of the northernmost area of Canada. Total distance traveled? Over 2,600 miles from its original location during a period of 76 days. Winter temperatures can drop to as low as 50 below zero during the winter, adding to the challenge. Most days, the animal averaged about 30 miles per day, but the data revealed several days where it covered nearly 100 miles. The researchers deemed it an astonishing and remarkable feat.
Ice floes in the open ocean water enabled the fox to change course and continue over previously untraveled waters. “It’s a young female, less than a year old, therefore relatively inexperienced, literally going out to discover the world and surviving an Arctic crossing on her first attempt,” stated a spokesperson from Agence France-Presse.
Although Arctic foxes are known for their endurance and ability to survive in harsh conditions in the northern polar areas, this fox ventured beyond the usual boundaries of typical animal treks. According to researcher Eva Fugei, “We couldn’t believe our eyes at first. We thought perhaps it was dead, or had been carried there on a boat, but there were no boats in the area. We were quite thunderstruck.” According to the Polar Research organization, this is the first tracking of an Arctic fox between continents.
Scientists will never know for sure, but it’s possible that food was scarce in the Norwegian region where the fox started out, leading it to head to the open water. Ice floes provided the opportunity to venture across vast ocean areas eventually enabling the animal to reach a very remote part of northern Canada. Some scientists and researchers are concerned that increases in global temperatures which have contributed to sea ice melting, will pose problems for the Arctic fox population in the future. In Iceland, for example, melting ice has left the Arctic fox population isolated.
As I read numerous news reports on the fox’s astounding journey, I also studied the maps illustrating its path, since that part of the world is unfamiliar to me. Several things ran through my mind. First, the animal’s travels remind us that geographic boundaries are just simply, well, geographic boundaries. Ice floes provided stepping stones or perhaps bridges from one place to another, across islands, countries, longitudes and latitudes. Second, I wondered what it was like for the fox during her search for a better place to live in the same way that I wonder what it’s like for families from Guatemala who have walked hundreds of miles north in search of something better for themselves. Maybe she felt like Forrest Gump felt as he walked across the Utah desert in the movie, seeking answers to questions rolling through his mind.
Much has been written about the excitement, fear, and wonder felt by the astronauts 50 years ago when the space shuttle made a seemingly impossible trip to the moon, but we’ll never know exactly what that was really like. And now, in this century, the idea of sending humans to Mars doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Ultimately, I believe that the desire for a better life and the quest to explore unfamiliar worlds is in our genes, and most definitely, in that fox’s genes too.
Julie Richman is a freelance writer, project manager and consultant. She and her family have lived on Colorado Springs’ northeast side for 21 years. Contact Julie with comments or ideas for her column at firstname.lastname@example.org.