Dental evidence for variation in diet over time and space in the Arctic fox, Vulpes lagopus


Studies of the effects of variation in resource availability are important for understanding the ecology of high-latitude mammals. This paper examines the potential of dental evidence (tooth wear and breakage) as a proxy for diet and food choice in Vulpes lagopus, the Arctic fox. It presents a preliminary study of dental microwear, gross wear score, and tooth breakage in a sample (n = 78 individuals) from the Yamal Peninsula of the Russian Arctic. While these measures have each been associated with feeding ecology in larger carnivorans (e.g., proportion of bone in the diet), they have yet to be combined in any study and have rarely been applied to smaller species or those from high latitudes. Arctic foxes from the north and south of the peninsula, and those from rodent peak and trough density periods, are compared to assess impact of changes in food availability across space and time. Results indicate that microwear textures vary in dispersion, with more variation in texture complexity, including higher values (suggesting more consumption of bone), in the rodent-poor period in the north of Yamal. Gross wear scores and tooth breakage are also significantly higher for the north of Yamal than the south. These data together suggest that dental evidence can provide important insights into variation in the feeding ecology of Arctic foxes and potentially into the impacts of changes in food abundance across space and time.

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Data availability

All raw data presented in this study are available in the supplemental online materials. The original specimens are archived at the Arctic Research Station in Labytnangi, Russia.


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We are grateful to Dieter Piepenburg, Robert Losey, and two anonymous reviewers for comments and suggestions that helped us improve the final version of this paper. NAS, IF, AAS, AT, and AV were supported by the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (Grant Number 18-05-60261), the Russian Center of Development of the Arctic, “Yamal-LNG” company, and the Government of the Yamal Nenets Autonomous District. OG, NAS, and AAS were supported by the French Polar Institute (Program “1036 Interactions”) and PRC CNRS Russie (Program “ECCVAT”). The collaboration was developed with support from the US National Science Foundation (Award Number 1927793) to PSU. We thank Violetta Filippova and Kirill Shklyar for providing Fig. 1.


NAS, IF, AAS, AT, and AV were supported through a grant of Russian Foundation for Basic Research No.: 18-05-60261, by the Russian Center of Development of the Arctic, “Yamal-LNG” company, and Government of the Yamal Nenets Autonomous District. OG, NAS, and AAS were supported by the French Polar Institute (Program “1036 Interactions”) and PRC CNRS Russie (Program “ECCVAT”). PSU developed the collaboration through support from US National Science Foundation Award No.: 1927793.

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PSU, AAS, and NAS conceived of the project. NAS, VS, IF, and AAS collected/processed specimens and generated metadata used in this paper. PSU, BVV, and ASP generated the dental data presented in this paper. PSU, DE, and BVV analyzed the data and PSU, BVV, AAS, NAS, DE, OG, BVV, ASP, AT, and AV wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Peter S. Ungar.

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Ungar, P.S., Van Valkenburgh, B., Peterson, A.S. et al. Dental evidence for variation in diet over time and space in the Arctic fox, Vulpes lagopus. Polar Biol (2021).

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  • Yamal Peninsula
  • Microwear
  • Tooth wear and breakage
  • Feeding ecology