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Population limitation in a non-cyclic arctic fox population in a changing climate


Arctic foxes Vulpes lagopus (L.) display a sharp 3- to 5-year fluctuation in population size where lemmings are their main prey. In areas devoid of lemmings, such as Iceland, they do not experience short-term fluctuations. This study focusses on the population dynamics of the arctic fox in Iceland and how it is shaped by its main prey populations. Hunting statistics from 1958–2003 show that the population size of the arctic fox was at a maximum in the 1950s, declined to a minimum in the 1970s, and increased steadily until 2003. Analysis of the arctic fox population size and their prey populations suggests that fox numbers were limited by rock ptarmigan numbers during the decline period. The recovery of the arctic fox population was traced mostly to an increase in goose populations, and favourable climatic conditions as reflected by the Subpolar Gyre. These results underscore the flexibility of a generalist predator and its responses to shifting food resources and climate changes.

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This study was partly funded by the Science Research Fund of Iceland, the Ministry of the Environment, Iceland, and the Natural History Institute of Iceland. Thanks are due to all the fox-hunters who supplied material for the study in spite of no financial compensation. J. H. Jóhannsson and B. Guðjónsdóttir most graciously supplied unpublished data on breeding Fulmars. A. Angerbjörn and A. Gardarsson kindly read and criticised an early draft of this manuscript. Thanks to the editor and two anonymous reviewers for constructive comments.

Author Contribution Statement

P. H. and O. K. N. conceived and designed the initial study. P. H. and S. P. analysed the data. P. H., S. P., E. R. U. and O. K. N. wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Snæbjörn Pálsson.

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Communicated by Anders Angerbjörn.

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Pálsson, S., Hersteinsson, P., Unnsteinsdóttir, E.R. et al. Population limitation in a non-cyclic arctic fox population in a changing climate. Oecologia 180, 1147–1157 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-015-3536-7

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  • Population dynamics
  • Fluctuations
  • Rock ptarmigan
  • Northern fulmar
  • Goose