Polar Biology

, Volume 37, Issue 1, pp 111–122 | Cite as

From breeding pairs to fox towns: the social organisation of arctic fox populations with stable and fluctuating availability of food

  • Bodil Elmhagen
  • Páll Hersteinsson
  • Karin Norén
  • Ester R. Unnsteinsdottir
  • Anders Angerbjörn
Original Paper


Food availability can impact group formation in Carnivora. Specifically, it has been suggested that temporal variation in food availability may allow a breeding pair to tolerate additional adults in their territory at times when food abundance is high. We investigate group occurrence and intraspecific tolerance during breeding in a socially flexible canid, the arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus). We compare Iceland and Sweden where resource conditions differ considerably. A breeding pair was the most common social unit in both populations, but as predicted, groups were more frequent where food abundance varied substantially between years (Sweden: 6 %) than where food availability was stable (Iceland: ≤2 %). Within Sweden, supplemental feeding increased group occurrence from 6 to 21 %, but there was no effect of natural variation in lemming (Lemmus lemmus) availability since group formation was rare also at lemming highs. Thus, additional factors appeared to influence the trade-off between intraspecific territoriality and tolerance. We report two cases where related females showed enduring social relationships with good-neighbour strategies. Related females also engaged in alloparental behaviour in a ‘fox town’ with 31 foxes (4 adults, 3 litters). In contrast, when unrelated foxes bred close to each other, they moved or split their litters during summer, presumably because of territorial conflict. We suggest that fluctuating food availability is linked to group formation in this Arctic carnivore, but also when food availability increases, additional factors such as relatedness, alloparental benefits, competition and predator defence appear necessary to explain group formation.


Food availability Social organisation Resource dispersion Canidae Vulpes lagopus Alopex lagopus 



We dedicate this paper to our friend and colleague, Páll Hersteinsson (1951–2011). Pall was a great naturalist and he made a major contribution to the way the paper is written. We thank a large number of people who have assisted in the field studies in Hornstrandir Nature Reserve and throughout the years, many Icelandic fox hunters who have volunteered arctic fox carcasses for research. The Icelandic research has been financed by grants from the Icelandic Science Research Fund and the Icelandic Ministry of the Environment to the University of Iceland and the Arctic Fox Centre. Regarding Sweden, we thank a large number of rangers and volunteers who have carried out den surveys and trapping. We particularly thank Lars Liljemark, Lars Back, Lars Rehnfeldt, Lars-Gunnar Wagenius, and Alf Kjellström who carried out den surveys and supplemental feeding in Helags. Linda Axelsson, Letty Elmhagen, Ulrika Mörtberg, and Guillaume Szor collected behavioural data in Vindelfjällen 2000–2001. The Swedish project has been financed by EU LIFE funded projects SEFALO and SEFALO+, Swedish WWF, Fjällräven AB, Cronstedt Foundation, Swedish Research Council FORMAS and Ekoklim at Stockholm University. The manuscript was improved by comments from Gustaf Samelius and two anonymous referees.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Bodil Elmhagen
    • 1
  • Páll Hersteinsson
    • 2
  • Karin Norén
    • 1
  • Ester R. Unnsteinsdottir
    • 2
    • 3
  • Anders Angerbjörn
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of ZoologyStockholm UniversityStockholmSweden
  2. 2.Department of Life and Environmental ScienceUniversity of IcelandReykjavíkIceland
  3. 3.The Arctic Fox CentreSudavikIceland

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