How Arctic rock ptarmigans save energy

This October 2012 video is called Svalbard rock ptarmigan (winter plumage).

From Lund University:

Arctic wildlife uses extreme method to save energy

April 28, 2020

The extreme cold, harsh environment and constant hunt for food means that Arctic animals have become specialists in saving energy. Now, researchers at Lund University in Sweden have discovered a previously unknown energy-saving method used by birds during the polar night.

Researchers from Lund University and the University of Tromsø have examined the immune system strength of the Svalbard rock ptarmigan in the Arctic. This bird lives the farthest up in the Arctic of any land bird, and the researchers have investigated how the immune response varies between winter and late spring.

When I was in Svalbard in June, I saw rock ptarmigans. Including a male which had spent the night on a telephone pole (safe from local Arctic foxes). He landed and mated with a female.

“We have discovered that the birds reduce how much they spend on keeping their own immune defence system up and running during the five months of the year when it is dark around the clock, probably to save energy. Instead, they use those resources on keeping warm and looking for food. When daylight returns, their immune response is strengthened again,” says Andreas Nord, researcher at Lund University.

The researchers found that when the birds become ill in mid-winter, their energy consumption drops compared to when they are healthy. However, when the birds become ill in late spring, their energy consumption increases instead.

“A weaker immune system is probably a part of all the adaptations that Arctic animals use to save energy in winter. The risk of being infected by various diseases so far north is less in winter than when it becomes warmer towards summer,” says Andreas Nord.

When Svalbard rock ptarmigan save energy in this manner, they do so by weakening an already weak immune system. According to the researchers, this is probably due to the fact that the species evolved in the Arctic where there has been less of a need for a very strong immune defence system.

“This may have negative consequences when the climate changes and migratory birds arrive earlier in the Arctic and leave later. More and more tourists also come ashore in places where people have not set foot before. Such a scenario paves the way for an increased risk of disease and may be a threat to animals that have evolved in the Arctic where a strong immune defence system might not have been needed,” Andreas Nord concludes.

Young female Arctic fox’s Svalbard-Canada journey

This video says about itself:

Arctic Fox mother and young kits. The video was taken by Barry Miller on a Cheeseman’s Ecology Safari to Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago. The foxes were found off a fiord just northeast of Longyearbyen. The trip was late June – early July 2018.

From Polar Research, June 2019, by Eva Fuglei and Arnaud Tarroux:

Arctic fox dispersal from Svalbard to Canada: one female’s long run across sea ice


We report the first satellite tracking of natal dispersal by an Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) between continents and High-Arctic ecosystems.

A young female left Spitsbergen (Svalbard Archipelago, Norway) on 26 March 2018 and reached Ellesmere IslandNew Arctic fungi species discovered, Nunavut, Canada, 76 days later, after travelling a cumulative distance of 3506 km, bringing her ca. 1789 km away (straight-line distance) from her natal area. The total cumulative distance travelled during the entire tracking period, starting when she left her natal area on 1 March 2018 and ending when she settled on Ellesmere Island on 1 July 2018, was 4415 km.

This is among the longest dispersal events ever recorded for an Arctic fox. Crossing extensive stretches of sea ice and glaciers, the female moved at an average rate of 46.3 km/day ± 41.1 SD. The maximum movement rate was 155 km/day and occurred on the ice sheet in northern Greenland. This is the fastest movement rate recorded for this species. The northernmost location recorded was on the sea ice off northern Greenland at a latitude of 84.7°N.

The Arctic fox was of the blue colour morph typical for coastal environments, where Arctic foxes are adapted to food webs without lemmings but with substantial inputs of marine food resources.

The Arctic fox settled on Ellesmere Island in a food web with lemmings, thereby switching ecosystems. Our observation supports evidence of gene flow across Arctic regions, including those seasonally bridged by sea ice, found in studies of the circumpolar genetic structure of Arctic fox populations.

The Arctic fox's long journey, from Polar Research

Eventually, the fox’s journey continued beyond Ellesmere Island. Her collar stopped working on 9 February 2019. So, we don’t know what happened to her after that.

See also here.

Old Svalbard mine still damages barnacle geese health

This 2015 video says about itself:

Daredevil Goslings Make a Terrifying Jump for Life

Greenland’s barnacle goslings undergo one of the most harrowing rites of passage of any creature on the planet. In order to reach the nourishing grassy plains below, the goslings must make a leap of faith and drop over 400ft from nests perched on towering cliff tops.

From Groningen university in the Netherlands:

Pollution poses threat to Arctic goose

Researchers show that growing up in polluted area in Svalbard causes severe stress

12 December 2018

Polluted air, water and land can have a far-reaching effect on animals in polar regions. An international team led by Isabella Scheiber, Maarten Loonen and Jan Komdeur from the University of Groningen and including researchers from the universities of Leipzig, Vienna and Wageningen and the University of Groningen Arctic Centre has shown that heavy metals in the ground in Svalbard affect the physiological processes of barnacle goslings (Branta leucopsis) and lead to stress. Their findings have been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Over 50 years ago, a coal mine imploded close to Ny-Ålesund in Svalbard.

At Ny-Ålesund mine, several disasters killed 71 miners while it was in operation from 1945 to 1954 and from 1960 to 1963.

Although the village was cleaned up, the area around the deserted mine, which is used as a grazing area by a population of barnacle geese, was not. Previous research by a team led by Maarten Loonen had already shown that high levels of heavy metals (trace elements) are still present in the area around the deserted mine. These can accumulate in the goose’s body as it grazes. It is known that pollution can affect animal behaviour, and in stressful situations, such as an encounter with a predator, the right behaviour can mean the difference between life and death. The researchers set out to discover the effect of heavy metals on the physiology and behaviour of barnacle goslings in acute stress situations.

Stress hormones

The research team studied barnacle goslings that spent the first days of their lives grazing by the polluted mine or on clean grounds. They measured the level of a stress hormone in the goslings’ droppings and observed their response to a stress test that consisted of isolating the goslings from their families for a short period of time or limiting their freedom. The goslings that grazed by the polluted mine were more restless and had higher levels of the stress hormone in their blood than their siblings that had grazed in the clean areas.


This research shows that past pollution persists for a long period of time and can significantly affect an animal’s stress response. Jan Komdeur: ‘We were astounded because the goslings were exposed to the pollution for an extremely short period of time. However, this was during a critical phase in their development. The long-term effect of this early exposure to trace elements, on reproduction success and the survival of the barnacle goose for example, remains to be seen. In fragile ecosystems such as the polar regions, this effect could be crucial to the species.’

More information

Publication: Scheiber, I.B.R., Weiß, B.M., de Jong, M.E., Braun, A., van den Brink, N.W., Loonen, M.J.J.E., Millesis, E. & Komdeur, J. – Stress behaviour and physiology of developing Arctic barnacle goslings (Branta leucopsis) is affected by legacy trace contaminants. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 285: 20181866. doi:10.1098/rspb.2018.1866.

Kittiwake colony in Svalbard

In this 15 July 2018 Dutch video, Arctic biologist Maarten Loonen is at a kittiwake nesting colony near Ny-Ålesund in Svalbard.

He tells that, because of the birds’ dung, spoonwort plants grow here. In the seventeenth century, spoonwort was important for whalers then in Svalbard, as its vitamin C content helped against scorbut.

Svalbard seed vault update

This video says about itself:

Inside the Svalbard Seed Vault

4 May 2016

A rare look inside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault which is closed ~350 days a year

Translated from Dutch NOS TV today:

The Norwegian government is investing more than 10 million euros in a renovation of the World Seed Bank on Spitsbergen island. About 900,000 seeds are stored in the bunker, so that the DNA is retained in the event of a major natural disaster or nuclear disaster. The seeds are important for the food supply chain on earth.

The world seed bank is 120 meters deep in a mountain near Longyearbyen town, where the temperature is brought to -18 degrees Celsius.

The money includes a separate room for electrical appliances that generate heat, so that the bunker itself remains as cold as possible. There will also be a new watertight entrance. Late 2016 showed that the current entrance was leaking, when the permafrost melted unexpectedly. …

The seeds from the database were used for the first time three years ago. During the civil war in Syria, thousands of seeds were stored and secured from that country, which were later brought back when the situation became more peaceful.

HOW THIS ‘DOOMSDAY VAULT’ COULD SAVE US FROM CRISIS The “Doomsday Vault” lies within the Arctic Circle, sunk deep into permafrost to keep temperatures low. It is designed to remain at -0.4 degrees Fahrenheit, even without power. It’s a backup facility for the 1,700 seed banks around the world, designed to safeguard the world’s most important crops from catastrophe ― including war, disease and, increasingly, the impact of climate change. [HuffPost]

Seventeenth-century Spitsbergen whalers’ inadequate clothes

The whale train oil cookery of the Amsterdam chamber of the Northern Company at Smeerenburg; painting by Cornelis de Man (1639)

In 1614, Dutch whalers established the camp, later village, Smeerenburg on Arctic Amsterdam island close to bigger Spitsbergen island. They especially aimed at killing slow-swimming bowhead whales.

From Groningen University in the Netherlands:

PhD defence Sandra Comis

Excavated Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century whalers’ clothing from Spitsbergen

15 November 2017

A series of archaeological excavations carried out by the Ar[c]tic Centre of the University of Groningen between 1979-1981 uncovered the remains of a Dutch whaling station on Spitsbergen. Hundreds of textile fragments were found in and around the houses and the blubber furnaces, that were exploited from 1614 to around 1600 [sic; 1660]. Amongst the finds were fragments of felt hats, jackets, breeches, stockings and mittens. The men evidently wore their normal winter clothing at work. The remains of textiles were also found in the graves of seven whalers who died during the overwintering attempt of 1634-1635.

In 1980, excavations were also conducted on the island Zeeuwse Uitkijk [now: Ytre Norskøya]. Here the graves of 50 whalers were investigated. The graves contained a total of 33 knitted caps, one fur-brimmed leather cap, eight jackets and four pairs of breeches, either complete or in fragments, as well as several stockings. On the basis of the clothing styles some of the graves can be dated to the period between 1650 to around 1750. This forms the largest collection of workmen’s clothing from this period in Europe.

In an interview with Dutch daily De Volkskrant of 22 November 2017, Ms Comis said these clothes, made for winter in the temperate Netherlands, were wholly inadequate for Arctic Svalbard.

Climate foiled Europeans’ early exploration of North America. ‘A Cold Welcome’ examines how the Little Ice Age and other factors shaped colonial history: here.