According to NASA, the polar ice caps in Antarctica are melting at an alarming rate, losing approximately 150 billion tons of ice every year. The devastating effects of ice mass loss are especially clear across the arctic and tundra, both home to different animals.
The rapid melting of the ice and snow has serious consequences. As a result, the sea levels rise, acidifying the ocean and disrupting the balanced ecosystem that all Arctic wildlife relies on to survive.
We believe that being informed about the state of our planet should be a shared responsibility because only by knowing the realities that these animals face can we bring more awareness to our communities and start implementing small or big changes that can benefit the Arctic and Tundra dwellers.
That’s why we want to bring you on this journey and introduce you to these majestic animals that are either endangered or threatened and even explain these terms that are so often confused. So, if you want to learn more then all you have to do is keep on reading!
What Are the Differences Between Endangered and Threatened Species?
When we talk about animal life on this planet, we often hear the words endangered and threatened thrown around, but they don’t mean the same thing.
According to USGS ” “Endangered” means a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. “Threatened” means a species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.”
USGS also adds that terms like “imperiled” or “at risk” are not legal under the Endangered Species Act.
So, in other words, endangered species are more at risk of becoming extinct, while threatened animals or plants are somewhat less in danger in comparison, but without proper protection, they are quite likely to become endangered.
17 Endangered and Threatened Species in the Arctic and Tundra
The Arctic is a polar region, located in the northernmost part of our planet, and Tundra ecosystems are treeless regions found in the Arctic.
It might be surprising to find that animals have been surviving and flourishing under such conditions. They all have adaptations for surviving in such cold temperatures, however, they rely on the ice to survive. Many of these Arctic Tundra dwellers are endangered, others are threatened and for some, the line is getting thinner and thinner, so let’s explore these 17 animals of the true North!
Polar bears are one of the most recognizable Northern animals that live in the Arctic Circle where they swim in the freezing waters and walk on ice sheets.
Being the largest bear means that this animal is extremely strong, but unlike other bears, the Polar bear has webbed feet. This makes them especially efficient hunters and they use their skills to hunt for ringed and bearded seals.
Polar bears are actually classified as “marine mammals” like seals, sea lions, walruses, whales, and dolphins. They spend a great deal of time on ice and in the water, plus they rely on marine life as a main staple of their diet.
In other words, their pure white coat, strong build, and webbed feet make them the most efficient arctic dweller, but even this resilient animal is classified as a threatened species.
The melting ice caps are the biggest threat to this majestic animal. Since polar bears spend the majority of their time on sea ice, as the ice melts they will end up losing their habitat which they use to travel, hunt, mate, and raise their offspring as well as a resting place.
As an animal that is adapted only for cold temperatures this vulnerable species is in real danger of becoming extinct, in fact, the U. S. Geological Survey suggests that “two-thirds of the world’s polar bear sub-populations will be extinct by 2050”.
One of the many charming and cute animals of the arctic tundra is the arctic fox or white fox as it’s also known due to its pure white fur.
The arctic fox has an incredible survival mechanism where they change the color of their fur. They are white during the winter and they turn grayish brown during the summer. This way they can camouflage themselves against the background all year round.
This beautiful white fox usually hunts small animals, like rodents, birds, and fish, but they also rely on another arctic animals during the winter times when food is scarce. These foxes will feed on the leftovers that are abandoned by polar bears that hunt for seals.
This link between the polar bear and the arctic fox also shows us how fragile the ecosystem is in the arctic. These animals rely on each other for survival sometimes. In this case, if polar bears go extinct that means that arctic foxes will have a harder time surviving the winter.
While the arctic fox might be listed as a species that is “least concern” by the WWF, the Scandinavian Arctic fox populations which include Norway, Sweden, and Finland are endangered and critically endangered in Finland. They’re also under protection.
The gray wolf has been through a lot of tribulations, going from a threatened and endangered species to a least concerned more than once, but this time it seems the gray wolf is listed as endangered once more.
According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, “Minnesota’s gray wolf once again became a federally protected threatened species.” The gray wolf is also considered to be endangered in most states where it inhabits.
While the gray wolf in Alaska has never been threatened or endangered, some subspecies, like the Alexander Archipelago wolves are at risk. Their biggest threat comes from logging and deforestation in Alaska, which is problematic because they play a critical role in the Tongass forest’s ecosystem.
The wood bison is a large and heavy animal, with thick wooly hair that protects them from the harsh cold of the Alaskan tundra. They are also found in Canada.
According to the Alaska Wildlife reports, “this magnificent animal stood in the doorway of extinction with its numbers crashing to fewer than 300 at the turn of the 20th century.”
Thankfully, with great efforts to restore the population of wood bison by conservationists, their numbers have grown by more than 10% since 2020.
Overhunting has done much harm to the wood bison, and while this is an issue that is more regulated these days, these animals have other threats to face like the distribution of habitat, unpredictable weather, and harsh winters.
So, the wood bison still need to be watched over and protected!
You might be more familiar with the name reindeer than caribou, and as you probably already know this iconic animal is native to the Arctic and tundra, as well as other regions of the Northern Hemisphere.
Unlike Santa, the caribou is real, but because this species is listed as threatened there is a real risk that they will become endangered and eventually go extinct.
According to the government of Canada, habitat deterioration from either fragmentation, degradation or loss is one of the main threats to the caribou, but not the only one. Forest fires, forest harvesting, oil and gas exploration and extraction, road networks, hunting, and poaching are also to blame.
Despite the fact that the caribou is currently a threatened species, Canada has taken serious steps to protect the at-risk animals and their ecosystems. So, maybe there is some hope for this species after all!
The Pacific Walrus
While walruses may look like wise old men, you wouldn’t want to go up against their size and long tusks. These Atlantic marine mammals live in the northern parts of Canada, Greenland, and Russia.
Just like the polar bear, the Pacific walrus uses its icy environment to survive. It’s a place where they can rest, socialize, give birth, and nurse their young.
As the ice melts, these giants are forced to seek refuge ashore, something that can quickly become dangerous for these creatures. Any noise or scent by a human or predator scares them and can cause a deadly stampede as they rush back into the waters, injuring and even killing each other in their efforts.
The IUCN has listed the Pacific walrus as vulnerable and thankfully there are efforts from the U.S. to protect these animals.
Saimaa Ringed Seal
According to WWF, the Saimaa ringed seal is “one of the rarest seals in the world. Around 410 seals remain in Lake Saimaa, Finland.”
Perhaps you are more familiar with the Saimaa ringed seals when they are just babies since they are born with an iconic white coat that they shed after four to six weeks, revealing their grey coat that is adorned with white rings, hence the name.
I remember seeing the cute pictures of these little seal babies, only to find out that they were hunted by humans. Hunting, pollution, and the water level fluctuation of the Saimaa lake have been disastrous to this species.
The Saimaa ringed seal almost faced complete extinction, but thanks to the efforts of various organizations, these animals are no longer hunted and today the Saimaa ringed seal is protected by the Nature Conservation Act.
Whenever I see a picture of a bowhead whale I’m instantly reminded of the book Moby Dick, in fact, both whales are baleen whales, so I’m not too far off. (Baleen wheels don’t have teeth, or at least not traditional teeth, and use plates to filter krill and microorganisms out of the water instead).
This giant marine mammal is native to the Arctic and subarctic waters. What’s truly fascinating about bowhead whales is that they use their massive triangular skull to break through arctic ice.
Originally the main threat to bowhead whales was overhunting, and that’s why these whales are listed as endangered in many countries, among them the United States. Regulations prohibiting the hunting of bowhead whales have helped increase their population, but these animals still face other dangers.
The bowhead whales are also affected by the melting sea ice, not only are they losing their natural habitat, but according to WWF some of the new threats that have emerged include “more killer whales, and more oil and gas exploration and development, more commercial shipping plans, and more commercial fishing activity.”
The melting of sea ice also means that bowhead whale calls are better detected, and the readings have also shown that their numbers are dwindling. Unfortunately, the increased noise from transmissions is also damaging and oftentimes leads to deadly collisions.
The beluga whale is one of the smallest species of whale, and one of their most important survival mechanisms is the white color of their skin that helps them swim in the waters of the Arctic ocean unnoticed.
These marine mammals are usually found in groups known as pods and they are very social and vocal using different sounds, like clicks, whistles, and clangs.
While beluga whales hold the status as “near threatened” they are still at risk of becoming endangered for a number of reasons, including melting sea ice, habitat loss, pollution, hunting, and human building along the coastlines.
In fact, many subpopulations of the beluga whale are considered endangered, this includes the beluga whale in Cook Inlet in Alaska, Hudson Bay, Ungava Bay, and the St. Lawrence River in Canada.
Also known as the unicorn of the sea thanks to the long ivory tusk protruding from its head, the narwhal is a medium-sized whale, and 75% of its population can be found in the Canadian Arctic, while the rest live in the arctic waters of Greenland, Norway, and Russia.
This one-of-a-kind whale is adapted to live in this cold climate, but temperature changes in the Arctic put them at risk of being entrapped in ice and killed. They are also at risk of hunting by natives for their blubber, flesh, and tusks, despite toxins from pollution being found in their tissues.
The narwhal status is up for debate because in 2012 the IUCN conservation listed narwhals as Near Threatened; However, in 2017 they listed them as Least Concern. In Canada, on the other hand, narwhals are listed as “Special Concern” animals.
Other sources claim the narwhals are near threatened as well. But, no matter where an organization might stand, one thing is clear, these and other of these majestic Arctic animals will be at risk sooner or later if the polar ice caps continue melting.
Orca or killer whales as they’re also known are part of the dolphin family, and they can be found in a variety of marine environments including the Arctic.
These marine mammals are quite infamous for their hunting habits and mostly for their competition with fishermen, but thankfully these negative associations that humans have created are changing, and hopefully, that can help change the current status of orcas that are listed as endangered.
Environmental pollution and boat noise both affect the sinking numbers of the orca, as well as the decline of wild Chinook salmon both from overfishing and pollution. Chinook salmon is the orca’s major food source.
These beautiful animals need our protection if we want to continue sharing our planet with them!
The Prairie Pigeon or the Eskimo Curlew as it’s also known, is a unique-looking bird, with a long beak, warm brown feathers, and dark green legs.
This species nests in Arctic tundra areas in Alaska and northwestern Canada and it’s considered critically endangered or possibly extinct, which is devastating to hear especially since this specific type of shorebird were the most numerous in the tundra.
Hunting was one of the major causes of the Prarie Pigeon’s current unknown and critical status, but it wasn’t the only one. The grasslands that served as stopover habitats for these birds were converted to agricultural fields.
Additionally, the wildfires which burned the Great Plains ended up destroying the habitat of the Prairie pigeons. The fires also led the Rocky Mountain locust to extinction, and their eggs and larvae were one of the primary food sources for these birds.
Since the Prairie Pigeon hasn’t been spotted in over 60 years, some people are wondering if it’s time to declare this species extinct. But whether this decision is right or wrong it’s important to mention that other Curlew birds are also threatened by extinction, like the Bristle-thighed Curlew, and they need to be protected!
Arctic Peregrine Falcon
Unlike the more gentle Eskimo Curlew on this list, the Arctic Peregrine Falcon is an impressive bird, the fastest diving bird, in fact, that can dive up to 200 miles (323 kilometers) an hour to capture its prey in flight. It also has some of the best long-distance vision in the animal kingdom!
These birds are not necessarily indigenous to the Arctic, instead, they can be found almost everywhere. However, some Peregrine Falcons live year-round in Alaska, while others migrate to the Alaskan tundra each year.
Despite the resilient nature of these birds, the Peregrine Falcon became an endangered species because of the use of organochlorine pesticides, during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.
While the Peregrine Falcon has seen an 80% decrease in their population, the efforts to ban DDT pesticides have helped get these birds delisted in some areas.
That being said, they are still listed as threatened in Texas, and their numbers are still quite low, and other threats such as habitat modification could affect the numbers of the Arctic Peregrine Falcon in the future.
The Ptarmigan is found in the Arctic and it’s not a bird that one can easily spot because they have a talent for camouflaging themselves against the snow background in the winter, by becoming completely white. But, during the summer their feathers turn grey, brown, and black with only the belly remaining white.
Unfortunately, this camouflaging talent is not enough to protect the Ptarmigan from the dangers of extinction. As the Center for Biological Diversity states “the Ptarmigan is threatened by warmer winter temperatures and forests that will creep uphill and eliminate its alpine meadow habitat”
The Ptarmigan’s UK conservation status is red, and even though it’s listed by the IUCN as “Least Concern” it’s clear that the population of these birds is dangerously decreasing.
The longer I look at a Red Knot the more enthralled I am by its beauty, but it’s definitely not something you notice right from the start. These birds are quite plump, and they do change their color between the breeding season and winter. During the colder months, their plumage is pale gray with a white belly, and it changes to an impressive terracotta chest and belly and a brown plumage above.
If you’re not impressed with the Red Knot’s appearance then the fact that this bird travels approximately 18,000 miles on their 20-inch wingspan, as Elly Pepper from NRDC explains, “from South America’s southern tip to their Arctic breeding grounds in the spring and then back in the fall” should definitely impress you, because that makes it “the longest migrations of any animal.”
Unfortunately, despite the fact that he is a hardy bird, the Red Knot is a threatened species. Their population has declined because of food shortages, specifically the horseshoe crab eggs in Delaware Bay.
New regulations are trying to protect these birds and hopefully, that can help their numbers grow once more!
Perhaps Hedwig from Harry Potter is the most recognized Snowy Owl out there, and it’s not surprising because this is the most majestic bird of the Arctic regions and tundra. The Snowy Owls migrate to Canada, the United States, Europe, and Asia, but sometimes they also remain in their Northern breeding grounds.
The Snowy Owl has been assessed for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2021 and it is listed as vulnerable. That’s because the population of the Snowy Owl has drastically decreased from 200,000 in 2013 to 28,000.
The biggest risk to the great Snowy Owl is the loss of its primary food source, the Arctic lemming. We’re going to get to why the lemmings numbers are dwindling next.
Lemmings are small rodents that are found in the Northern Hemisphere, like the Arctic tundra. Snow plays a major role in their survival during the winter because the insulated places underneath it provide the lemmings with shelter, food, and protection from predators.
It makes sense, therefore, that the melting of the polar ice caps affects this critter’s ability to burrow under the snow. Invasive species and human presence also explain the dwindling numbers of lemmings. This animal is listed as a species of special concern, but by 2023 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide “whether to list the species as threatened or endangered.”
As already mentioned above, lemmings are the primary source of food for Snowy owls and as a result, their status will affect the status of snowy owls. The two rely on each other just like polar bears rely on the availability of seals and other animals they prey on to survive.
The Arctic tundra, and to be even more precise our planet won’t be the same without these unique animals.
We need to make sure that things can change for the better, so their numbers can go up once again and they can thrive in their environment as it was. To do so, we need to combat the issues facing these animals.
Many countries are taking strides to reverse their numbers, but everyone needs to work together to help this ecosystem thrive again. Educating yourself on these animals, how they’ve been affected by human presence on this planet, and learning what you personally can do to help will go a long way. Other conservation efforts, like housing in zoos, can help but they don’t solve the root of the issue and can come with their own site of problems.
While you are only one person (as am I), we aren’t entirely hopeless or helpless! Even things like reusing and recycling items, investing or demanding companies to invest in eco-friendly energy sources, and buying more locally sourced food can help. We can also keep the conversation going with the people around us we can take the necessary small steps for the greater good of our planet.