Arctic fox populations in a remote corner of the Westfjords are declining fast, but the cause remains a mystery. Weather conditions, and possibly polluted food, have been amongst the speculated causes.
RÚV reports that many foxes have been found dead or dying along the north coast of Hornstandir, the northernmost peninsula in the Westfjords. Ester Rut Unnsteinsdóttir, a mammal ecologist, has been visiting northern Hornstrandir since the summer of 1998 to assess arctic fox populations. Last June, 10 foxes were found dead, and few had any young. Ester told reporters that there are normally six pairs with young foxes in the area, but thus far only three pairs have been found.
“One pair lost half of their young,” she said. “And the rest appeared to be thin and malnourished animals.”
Ester has since received word of several fox corpses; about one or two in every cove and fjord in the area. This, she says, indicates a localised and temporary collapse of the stock.
There is as yet no explanation for the rapidly declining fox population. Changing weather conditions may be a factor, as the rapid succession between snow and rain can have a negative effect on their health. The lack of snow cover has also made hunting more difficult. There could also be another explanation: polluted food.
“I suspect that the food in the area is very polluted,” Ester said. “I don’t know what effect this has on the animals, but we have conducted research to measure pollution levels. This research is still incomplete. A lot of mercury has been found in foxes in Iceland, especially in those that live near the sea and eat seabirds, or beached seals and whales. I suspect that [mercury] could have an effect.”