David Adam

Polar bears may not be the only Arctic wildlife threatened by global warming. Scientists have discovered that Arctic foxes also struggle as the ice disappears because they rely on the frozen seas to survive the bleak winters.

Researchers tracked the movements of 14 young foxes as they faced their first Arctic winter in northern Alaska, where the temperature plunges to minus 30{+0}C and it is dark for 24 hours a day. Only three animals survived the winter, by wandering hundreds of miles across the frozen sea ice looking for seal carcasses left by polar bears.

The 11 foxes that remained on the mainland perished. The three foxes using the sea ice to survive the winter spent up to five months there, travelling up to 2,700km.

The scientists said taking to the ice could help foxes survive because there were fewer predators and food was easier to find than on land. But they said the discovery raised new concerns over the foxes’ survival in the face of diminishing Arctic ice cover. Sea ice in the Arctic region, formed from frozen seawater, has shrunk dramatically in recent years and could reach a new record low this summer. This year’s ice melt season has started sooner than usual.

Nathan Pamperin, a scientist at the department of biology and wildlife at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who led the Arctic fox study, said: “With reduced access to sea ice, it is possible that, in the years when foxes would normally travel on the ice, they may face tougher conditions on land, and possibly lower survival.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008