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Foxes, Weasels, Lemmings and Hares

These smaller animals are relatively abundant throughout Nunavut, and can be seen near most communities. In 1919, red foxes crossed Hudson Strait from Quebec to Baffin Island, and reached the Queen Elizabeth Islands by 1962. The red fox (tiriganniarjuaq) goes through phases of colors, including silver, black, brown and red. On average, they have litters of four to eight pups. The arctic fox (tiriganiaq) is white during winter, but changes to largely dark brown in summer. Arctic foxes usually bear only four to six young. As with the red fox, litter size increases significantly in years when lemmings are numerous.

Foxes travel extensively in search of food — they can be found almost anywhere. Although it's hard to predict if you will see any, foxes are curious and may approach your camp. However, a fox that approaches too closely and appears overly friendly could have rabies; play it safe and scare it away. The young become independent in September so you might see them in their quest for food. Foxes eat lemmings, hares, ptarmigan, bird eggs, decaying flesh from carcasses, and garbage.

The least weasel, or ermine (tiriaq), is probably the most commonly seen mammalian predator of the arctic tundra. The weasel lives wherever it can form a den to raise young and store prey in times of abundance. They den among rock piles, loose earth and both Thule and modern-day houses. When lemmings are abundant, so are weasels. You may see them flashing behind a building, across a street or even between your feet. In summer, these long, sleek animals are brown, but in winter they don an all-white coat, ending in a long, black-tipped tail. Although they depend mainly on lemmings, these small but fierce predators will tackle prey up to the size of arctic hares. They are usually no problem to larger animals, although they will defend themselves if cornered.

On a warm spring day, have you caught a glimpse of a dark fur ball skittering across the snow that magically vanishes? It was probably a lemming (avinngaq) out for its first above-snow adventure in many months. For smaller predators like the weasel, fox and snowy owl, lemmings are the life-blood of the arctic tundra. Snowy owls often produce young only when lemmings are in abundance. Lemmings are mainly seen in summer but are active throughout the winter, living in nests made of grass and burrowing through snowy tunnels along the ground. Lemming numbers usually go through a four-year cycle, but some peaks may bring greater abundance than others and some areas may experience peaks sooner than elsewhere. Nunavut is home to two species: the brown (kajuqtaq) and collared (amirta or qilangmiutaq) lemming. The brown lemming prefers wetter areas, while the collared lemming is usually seen in rocky terrain. The collared lemming turns white in winter, and is the only one to occupy the High Arctic islands.

The arctic hare (ukaliq) is widely distributed across Nunavut. They live among rocks on rough hillsides and mountains, where they have ready shelter from foxes, gyrfalcons and other predators. Hares eat grasses, sedges, willows and other plants. Across most of their range, they are seen in small family units, but on the Queen Elizabeth Islands you may encounter herds of 100 or more. From a distance, these groups look like white clouds flowing across the summer tundra. In southern parts of their range, they may moult to grey or brown in summer.

*Reproduced from an article Land Mammals by Marian and Mike Ferguson
contained in the Nunavut Handbook