Written by Clara Gyhrs

 

This year we are running a project on the Arctic foxes in the area surrounding Skálanes Nature and Heritage Centre, where we are collecting baseline data and testing methods that could be used for future fox research. Some of the questions we aim to answer are:

  • Where are the fox dens? This could help future research teams find the foxes more easily for any projects.
  • What do the foxes eat? This can help predict how foxes’ diet might be influenced by climate change.
  • What parasites might the foxes have? This helps us understand how healthy the population might be, and can be used to assess the risk of parasites being passed from foxes to other animals, such as domestic dogs.
  • How can we get genetic samples from the foxes without disturbing them? Most genetic research on foxes in Iceland comes from foxes that have been killed by hunters. Developing methods to collect genetic samples in a non-invasive way can help researchers study foxes that are alive and still interacting with their environment.

Why are we doing this?

Having baseline data is important because it allows a researcher to plan their projects using some basic information as a starting point. This lets people plan things like, the scale of their project, what sort of equipment they need to buy, and what sort of questions they can expect to be able to answer.

Often, baseline studies need to be done before any large project can start. By doing this we are supporting future expedition teams, in case someone chooses to do a more detailed fox project, as well as testing methods that can be used by people all over Iceland and in other areas.

What we have done so far:

So far, our project has involved lots of walking around on the hills looking for any traces of foxes. These traces include faeces, hair, footprints, and also animal carcasses. Other indicators that a fox has been present are bones with teeth marks, piles of feathers, or eggshells that are far away from nests. The skull pictured below was found in the vicinity of an unoccupied den, and was probably hunted by a fox a year or more ago. Notice the small, circular holes in the bone. We suspect that these were from fox teeth!

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We have also collected some faecal samples that we suspect are a year or two old and they have given us a great opportunity to practice our lab methods! Faeces can provide a huge amount of information about an animal and in this case, we are using it to determine the foxes’ diet by identifying what we can from the hard tissue that remains. So far, we have dissected them and found a lot of feathers, bones, and amazingly some squid beaks!  We don’t think the foxes hunted squids themselves, but more likely that they ate a bird that had eaten squids. We used another method on these old faeces to see if we could find any parasite eggs in them. And amazingly we did! As shown by the photos below.

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Apart from looking at the diet and health of the foxes, we have also been trying out a hair sampling method. We have placed three poles covered in blunted barbed wire in places where we have found fox footprints, but far enough away from the dens so that any foxes should not be disturbed. These poles have pieces of fresh cod placed on top as bait, and when the fox climbs the pole to eat the bait it will hopefully snag some hairs on the junctions where the wires meet and leaving them behind for us to collect. This method has been used before on bears, wolverines, and red foxes in other parts of the world, but not yet on Arctic foxes in Iceland.

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What we are going to do?

So far we have not had any luck with collecting hair samples, but we’ve set up some new camera traps to try to figure out why the foxes are not taking the bait. Some questions to think about are: Are they not finding the poles? Are the poles too high for the foxes? Do they get distracted by birds near the pole?

 

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