Back in 2017, Norwegian researchers released a GPS-tagged Arctic fox into the wilds of Norway’s Spitsbergen coast, in the Svalbards. In March of 2018, the young female fox, not quite a year old, began a trek.
She started trotting north and just kept going. Within three weeks, she’d reached Greenland and the North Pole, a 1,000-mile hike completed in 21 days. Not finished yet, she kept going, headed in the direction of Canada, motivated by, well, researchers aren’t sure. But motivated she was. Weather is brutal in that part of the world, it goes without saying, and even Arctic foxes are susceptible to freezing. Curled up when sleeping to conserve warmth and wait out storms, the little fox persisted on her journey.
55 days later she appeared at Canada’s Ellesmere Island after hiking another 1,242 miles. All told, she covered 2,142 miles in 76 days. A pace of over 28 miles per day, though she covered close to 100 miles per day occasionally while taking the odd rest day too.
Scientists monitoring the fox assumed that to travel that far that fast, she’d been killed and perhaps was being transported by boat. They were stunned to discover she was alive in Canada when her movement patterns returned to normal and they discovered there’d been no boats in the area. That’s an extraordinary distance to cover and researchers had never seen anything like it before; they had no idea it was even possible.
“We were quite thunderstruck,” said Eva Fuglei, from the Polar Institute. “Could the fox have been found dead, the collar taken off and now aboard a boat?”
The fox’s transmitter stopped functioning in February, so it’s possible her thru-hike continues, even now. Though researchers are concerned she may have a difficult time finding food in her new home. Foxes there tend to eat small mammals, while those in the Svalbards favor marine life.
Part of the tracking effort was to see how animals like foxes are adapting to climate change by moving in search of food. Nobody expected such a well-traveled fox, though. Unfortunately, that trek may have been a search for food in an increasingly warming and fractured Arctic ecosystem.