, Volume 181, Issue 4, pp 1129–1138 | Cite as

The fall and rise of the Icelandic Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus): a 50-year demographic study on a non-cyclic Arctic fox population

  • E. R. UnnsteinsdottirEmail author
  • P. Hersteinsson
  • S. Pálsson
  • A. Angerbjörn
Population ecology – original research


In territorial species, observed density dependence is often manifest in lowered reproductive output at high population density where individuals have fewer resources or are forced to inhabit low-quality territories. The Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) in Iceland is territorial throughout the year and feeds mostly on birds, since lemmings are absent from the country. Thus, the population does not exhibit short-term population cycles that are evident in most of the species’ geographical range. The population has, however, gone through a major long-term fluctuation in population size. Because of the stability in hunting effort and reliable hunting records since 1958, the total number of adult foxes killed annually can be used as an index of population size (N t ). An index of carrying capacity (K) from population growth data for five separate time blocks during 1958–2007 revealed considerable variation in K and allowed a novel definition of population density in terms of K, or N t /K. Correlation analysis suggested that the reproductive rate was largely determined by the proportion of territorial foxes in the population. Variation in litter size and cub mortality was, on the other hand, related to climatic variation. Thus, Arctic foxes in Iceland engage in typical contest competition but can adapt their territory sizes in response to both temporal and spatial variation in carrying capacity, resulting in surprisingly little variation in litter size.


Population dynamics Density dependence Carrying capacity Contest competition Fecundity 



This paper is dedicated to its main author, Professor Pall Hersteinsson, who was actively working on this manuscript when he sadly passed away in October 2011. The Arctic fox was his main interest and he spent his entire scientific life in studying and understanding the ecology of the species. This study is based on his work and the long-term dataset he achieved. The study was partly funded by the Science Research Fund of Iceland and the Ministry of the Environment, Iceland. Thanks are due to all the foxhunters who supplied material for the study in spite of no financial compensation. A. Gardarsson and O.K. Nielsen kindly read and criticized an early draft of this manuscript.

Author contribution statement

PH conceived and designed the initial study but sadly passed away before this work was finished. PH, ERU and SP analyzed the data. ERU, PH, SP and AA wrote the manuscript.

Supplementary material

442_2016_3635_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (9 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 9 kb)
442_2016_3635_MOESM2_ESM.docx (23 kb)
Supplementary material 2 (DOCX 23 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • E. R. Unnsteinsdottir
    • 1
    Email author
  • P. Hersteinsson
    • 2
  • S. Pálsson
    • 2
  • A. Angerbjörn
    • 3
  1. 1.The Icelandic Institute of Natural HistoryGardabaerIceland
  2. 2.Institute of BiologyUniversity of IcelandReykjavikIceland
  3. 3.Department of ZoologyStockholm UniversityStockholmSweden

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