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Arctic Pups at Play

This morning I went out with our deputy scientific leader Lars again, who was out to count musk oxen – and to check up on these characters. As we approached the Arctic fox breeding den – a maze of underground tunnels, with numerous exits – these two youngsters were already keeping a curious lookout. This is their summer fur, they will be white in winter.

The team counted four pups earlier in the season, but there only seem to be two around at the moment. The others may have died, if there hasn\’t been enough food around to feed everybody. Or they could be keeping a low profile. Once upon a time – in fact even through the first half of the 20th century – trappers used to come here in winter to get them for their spectacular fur. Fortunately, the only humans who pass here nowadays are scientists at the station – and the odd journalist, “mostly harmless”. They weren’t bothered by our presence and soon came closer for a look.

There was no sign of the parents. Apparently they’re rarely seen around the den. If they were and started to bark at us, we would back off, I’m told.

Lars checks up on activity at the dens in the monitoring area. This involves sniffing the hole (!) checking for fur and scanning for droppings in the surrounding areas. All the info gets entered in detail into a hand-held mini-computer with gps and shifting maps.

There were a lot of yellow flowers around. These, I’m told, need plenty of nutrients. My expert tells me an abundance of yellow flowers is one sign of a fox den near, because our little furry friends fertilize the surrounding area! I’m lucky I got such a good look, some of the people who’ve been here a few weeks haven’t had a glimpse of the Arctic foxes.

We were also counting musk oxen. After seeing 6 fairly close to the station yesterday, today’s were few and far between, and high up on the mountainsides. Their exact location is registered. Lars also notes age and sex. This sounds like a difficult task, but the size is one indicator, and the horns another. Males have horns with a broader base (they charge each other and fight at times), the two halves grown closer together in older beasts. The females have softer curly hair between the horns (true, honest!).

Some we saw seemed to be enjoying the coolness on the remaining patches of snow. A lot of them are melting fast in this strong round-the-clock sunlight. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky today. Lars pointed out some melting snow areas which used to stay white all summer long a couple of years ago.

The most striking feathered visitor at the moment is the long-tailed skua, although, as attentive readers will remember, there are few nesting pairs partly because of a lack of tasty lemmings. We here their distinctive call in the air frequently, and sometimes come across them resting on a rock.


July 18, 2009 | 6:44 am