The wildlife in Svalbard have adapted to the harsh living conditions in the Arctic. Many of them have to endure extreme cold, periods with little food and a long winter without any sun.
Svalbard has only two species of land mammals: Arctic fox (Alopex lagopus) and the Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus). Polar bears spend most of their life in the pack ice and therefore is considered a marine mammal.
The round and short legged Svalbard reindeer is a distinct subspecies of caribou that do not live anywhere else. Their body shape is adapted to life in the Arctic. This means that the animal, which lives in the quiet of the winter, has a small heat loss in the cold. Unlike other reindeer, Svalbard reindeer usually don’t live in packs, but are found any time alone or with a few other animals. The animals are very shy and wander happily between houses in the settlements. In winter it is only the females who have antlers. In the summer goats also antlers, and they are often impressively large. When Norway assumed sovereignty over Svalbard in 1925, was the population of Svalbard reindeer greatly reduced as a result of hunting. The species was immediately protected and have increased in number. Today, about 10,000 reindeer scattered around the archipelago, but the greatest density of reindeer we find on Nordenskiöld Land. Here controlled hunting in some reserved areas is allowed for residents.
The tiny Arctic fox is common over most of Svalbard. Food supply varies from summer to winter, and during spring and summer, food supply includes baby seals, seabirds, geese, grouse eggs and important nutrients. In the winter their food includes rock ptarmigan, food, carrion from seals and reindeer, and garbage from the settlements. Fjellreven often follow polar bears to eat the remains of the bear hunts. In spring seal pups are an important change in their diets, the foxes trap and kill them on the sea ice. The arctic fox walks over large distances in search of food, too far out in the pack ice. A fox mark on Svalbard is recovered as far away as the Novaya Zemlya in Russia. There are two color varieties of fox. Blue fox is solid gray all year round and is relatively rare. White fox is grayish brown on the back and yellow-white on the belly in summer, but in winter it is completely white.
A pair of foxes stay together their entire lives. The female is pregnant for about 50 days and give birth on average five to six kits. The average age of polar fox is three or four years, but it can be up to 13 years old. There is no population estimate for arctic fox population in Svalbard.
When Svalbard was discovered in the late 1500s the bowhead whale was very numerous. It is estimated that the population stood at 25,000 animals when whaling began in 1611. After three hundred years of whaling the bowhead whale was considered extinct at Svalbard. Some rare observations indicate that there are still a few bowhead whales here.
The walrus (Odobenus rosmarus), Svalbard’s largest seal species, almost suffered the same fate as the bowhead whale. It used to be highly sought after because of their tusks, their blubber was used to make oil and also for ropes and leather. When the walrus was protected in 1952 there were only a few hundred animals left at Svalbard. The walrus is an impressive sight: Large males can weigh up to two tons and be four meters long. That is as big as a passenger car! The animals are highly social and usually occur in herds of several hundred animals. Walruses often staying in shallow waters where they eat shellfish and other benthic organisms. Today they amount to several thousand, and several factors suggest that the walrus population is growing rapidly.
The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) was totally protected in 1973. Polar bears populations did not suffer the same catastrophic consequences. The polar bear is the world’s largest predator, but its weight varies considerably throughout the year and between individuals. By autumn they gain a ton of weight while they tend to be leaner as summer approaches. Adult males can weigh up to 800 kg, but males weighing half of this are more common. Females are considerably smaller than males. Their main food source for polar bears is ringed and bearded seals. Today the polar bear is common in Svalbard, and the population is estimated at about 3,000 animals. The listing of polar bears and walruses are good examples of administrative decisions which have had the desired effect.
Seals and whales
Ringed seals (Phoca hispida), or “ringed seal” as it is also called, are the most common marine mammals in Svalbard. This species of seal is the smallest of the seals here and it is common to see many ringed seals scattered on the sea ice in the spring. The bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus) is the largest seal on Svalbard after the walrus. This quiet selenium are not as numerous as the ringed seal, but are a common sight in areas with shallow water around Svalbard. The most common and probably the most abundant whale species are the beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) which also called white fish. This four meter long whale can occasionally be seen in small herds close to land. Adult animals are white, juveniles more gray.
Svalbard Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus) is the salmon fish in the world who live farthest north, and it is the only freshwater fish on Svalbard. It is found in lakes and rivers in many parts of the archipelago. Some populations live only in freshwater, while others migrate between the sea and freshwater.
High Arctic areas such as Svalbard have few bird species compared to more southerly latitudes. But even though there are few species, some species return in very numerous numbers. Svalbard has 3-4000000 nesting seabirds, and on Bjørnøya, Hopen, in Storfjord and on the west coast are some of Europe’s largest nesting sites. Polar guillemots (Uria lomvia) nest in several places in colonies of 100,000 couples. In the bird cliffs is the close interaction between marine life and life on land very clearly. The birds retrieve substantial amounts of small fish and crustaceans with which they feed their youngare .
Unlike most other hillsides in Svalbard’s vegetation under the bird cliffs are green and lush because of the fertilizer from bird dung. This does herbivores a lot of good, such as geese and Svalbard reindeer.
The tiny little auk is the most numerous species of birds. Probably over a million pairs of them live in Svalbard during summer. It nests in large colonies in canyons and cliffs all over the archipelago, but are especially abundant along the west coast of Spitsbergen. These birds circles in large swarms of breeding colonies before they set out to sea in search of small zooplankton.
Apart from occasional visits by snowy owl (Nyctea scandiaca) and bowhead gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) there are not birds of prey in the archipelago. This is probably due to the absence of natural rodent populations. Meanwhile liver glaucous (Larus hyperboreus) including eggs, chicks and adult little auks and fills in the raptors’ role.
Svalbard ptarmigan, arctic terns and snow bunting
Most birds leave the archipelago in winter and go to sea or migrate south. The only sedentary bird that live in the archipelago year round is Svalbard ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus hyperboreus). Ptarmigan on Svalbard is very shy and is easy to get close because they do not perceive humans as a threat. This despite the fact that the species is the most coveted prey during the autumn hunt in Svalbard.
Svalbard-bird with the longest migration between summer and winter , the arctic tern (Sterne paradisaea), and some individuals overwinter in Antarctica! Only songbird in Svalbard is the hardy little snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis). It appears like the beginning of April and spreads his song to the delight of locals.
There were polar hares on Svalbard. They no longer exist. Life in the Arctic was too hard for them.
Atle – the last muskox in Longyearbyen
Just like the polar hare, the muskox also did not make it on Svalbard. A strain was taken from Northeast Greenland in 1929 and set out. They thrived well in the beginning. As late as the 1960s one could see herds with calves. But then there was a steep decline in their population. Atle, which despite its name was a moskox, was the tribe’s past. In early 1980’s she settled down on the quay in Longyearbyen. Because she disrupted traffic and work, she was transported to a valley a few km away. She enjoyed herself there. Hikers can get close to her upto a few meters distance. But in 1983 she disappeared without a trace from the area. Musk oxen were extinct.