Living Near the North Pole

What do the wolverine, arctic hare, red fox, beluga whale, polar bear, reindeer, narwhal, snowy owl, Dall sheep and tundra swan all have in common? They all live close the North Pole! The region around the North Pole is known as the Arctic and is encircled by the Arctic Circle, located at 66 degrees North latitude. The Arctic is a very cold place to live – average summer temperatures range from 37 to 54 degrees Fahrenheit and average winter temperatures hover around -30 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite the frigid temperatures, the Arctic Circle is home to a variety of animals, including the ones mentioned above.

Viewer Tip: You’ve probably seen many of these animals in pictures or at the zoo, but you may be surprised to hear that you can see some of them in the wild – without a trip to the Arctic. Some of the animals found near the North Pole have big ranges and make appearances in parts of the United States. Learn more about these animals and the areas in the United States where you might catch a glimpse of them.

  • Reindeer (or Caribou): They may not have red noses and be able to fly like the legendary Rudolph, but reindeer are real animals.  Known as Caribou in North America, reindeer inhabit the northern reaches of the planet. They have a unique coat that helps them survive the blistering cold temperatures – it’s made of a thick, woolly under layer with an overcoat made of stiff, tubular hairs for insulation. Interestingly, scientists have recently discovered that the backs of reindeer’s eyeballs change color from gold in summer to blue in winter – the color change helps them catch more light during the dark winter months. The reindeer’s range is mostly a circumpolar distribution (found around the North Pole), but wild populations can be seen in the U.S. in Alaska and northern parts of Idaho and Washington.

  • Snowy Owl: The snowy owl, which delivers messages to Harry Potter in the books and movies, lives in many places beyond Hogwarts. White plumage with sparse dark spots covers the snowy owl, which provides camouflage against snow. Like the reindeer, the snowy owl’s range is mostly a circumpolar distribution, but during the winter, snowy owls can be seen as far south as Oklahoma reaching east-west from Washington to Maine. This year, snowy owls have been showing up along the Atlantic Coast and even as far south as Bermuda! Scientists are still trying to figure out why they are showing up in unusual places. One hypothesis is that unusual weather and lack of sea ice in the Arctic may be affecting the birds’ movements.

  • Red Fox: This animal may be easier to spot than the others. The red fox is about the size of a small dog with red fur and a bushy tail with a white tip. The red fox range is vast – they can be found as far north as the Arctic Circle and as far south as Texas. The only places the red fox may not show up are parts of the Great Plains and parts of the extreme southwestern and southeastern United States. They can be found in urban and suburban areas, sand dunes and mountain top habitats.

Learn more about the many animals found in the Arctic from NOAA.

(Sources: Windows to the Universe, “Arctic Weather,” http://www.windows2universe.org/earth/polar/weather_arctic.html; ICUN Red List of Threatened Species, “Caribou,” http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/29742/0; ARKive, “Reindeer,” http://www.arkive.org/reindeer/rangifer-tarandus/image-G80962.html; Image of caribou courtesy of USFWS; Choi, C. “Reindeer Eyes Turn Blue in the Winter.” http://www.livescience.com/40813-reindeer-eyes-turn-blue-in-winter.html; LiveScience ARKive, “Snowy Owl,” http://www.arkive.org/snowy-owl/bubo-scandiaca/; The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Snowy Owl,” http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/snowy_owl/lifehistory; Notes from a Snowy Owl Invasion, Audubon Magazine, December 4, 2013, http://www.audubonmagazine.org/articles/birds/notes-snowy-owl-invasion; Image of snowy owl courtesy of USFWS; ARKive, “Red fox,” http://www.arkive.org/red-fox/vulpes-vulpes/; Adirondack Ecological Center, “Red fox,” http://www.esf.edu/aec/adks/mammals/red_fox.htm; Image courtesy of NJ Department of Environmental Protection)

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