There are only three Icelandic land mammals and only the arctic fox is native. The other two, the mink and long-tailed field mouse were brought by humans. Sea mammals are quite more numerous and 23 species of whales have been seen in Icelandic waters. Of those species, 15 are regarded as common. Grey seal and harbour seal are common but 5 other species may be expected here.

Arctic fox | Vulpes lagopus (Canidae)

The arctic fox is the only land mammal that lived in Iceland before human settlement. It is an arctic species, that lives all around the Arctic ocean and on the sea ice, thereby having an easy passage to Iceland in the end of the last Ice age. After the ice age it is believed to have been isolated in Iceland since long term pack ice, connecting Iceland to the rest of the arctic zone, is uncommon.

The arctic fox is well adapted towards cold climate. Winter fur is thick with exceptional insulation, ears, snout, feet and tail are relatively short, and the white winter coat is excellent camouflage in snow.

There are two colour variants of the Arctic fox, white and brown. The white variant is white in the winter but turn brownish grey on the back and grey on belly in the summer. The brown variant is brown throughout the year with a darker shade in the summer. The variants intermix and the brown colour is dominant, causing 2/3 of the total Icelandic population to be of the brown variant, although this ratio is different between parts of the country. In areas where the fox depends largely on coastal feeding grounds, the majority is of the brown variant, as it is less visible than the white variant.

The Arctic fox is territorial. One pair occupies and defends each territory, which also marks the feeding grounds for that pair. Depending on the location of the territory (inland or at the seaside), the food of the arctic fox can be quite variable, but eggs and birds are usually a large proportion. Mice, berries, insects, carcasses of all sorts and even sheep are also on the menu.

Population size is about 10,000 individuals.

Mink | Neovision vision

Minks are not native land mammals in Iceland. They are imported and first arrived in the country in 1931 and soon escaped from captivity after that. Since then, they have gained a foothold in nature and spread throughout the country.

Mink’s preferred habitat is usually either by the sea or by rivers and lakes inland. Minks swim and dive well, and fish are by far their most important food. At the seaside, they mainly eat sea bream, springfish and conefish. In fresh water, they live mostly on trout titters and anglerfish. In addition, minks also hunt blackbirds, gulls, ducklings and duck eggs, voles, insects and crustaceans and other animals.

Wood mouse | Apodemus sylvaticus

The Wood mouse is believed to have been accidently brought here by Icelandic settlers. The Icelandic population marks the outmost range to north and west for the species, and the Icelandic mice are among the largest seen of the species. They are found in vegetated areas all over Iceland where they live in burrows in the soil or hollows under rocks. The burrows are usually branched with many entrances, which end in a nest, made of dry grass and leaves, or storage, where food is gathered before winter.

The Wood mouse is omnivore and feeds on berries and seeds but also on insects and carcasses, and are often found near human settlement. They are effective swimmers, excellent climbers and can jump up to 80 cm. The life span is short, usually only one year

Whales | Cetacea

Whales, like fin-footed mammals, evolved from terrestrial mammals that became adapted to aquatic life. As all mammals, they breathe air with lungs and have mammary glands which the young calves suckle.

Among the whales are the largest animals that have ever lived on earth. The largest of all is the Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), rare but occasionally seen in Icelandic waters. The blue whale may become 35 m long and weigh 100–190 tonnes. They may live to an age as high as 100 years.

There are two suborders. The baleen whales (Mysticeti) which instead of teeth have so called baleen plates, and the toothed whales (Odontoceti).

About 25 species of whales are found in Icelandic waters. Most of the large species are migratory and travel each year between Iceland and southern areas in the Atlantic ocean, even south of the equator.

World: ~90 species. Iceland: ~25 species.

Baleen whales | Mysticeti

Baleen whales are large, with adult size of 6–35 m and 5–120 tonnes. They feed mostly on small crustaceans such as krill (Euphausiacea), which they filter from the water through the baleen plates. Most baleen whales in Icelandic waters will be born around the equator. They migrate each year to Iceland and back and may cover a distance of up to 20.000 km.

World: 12 species. Iceland: 7 species.

Icelandic baleen whales

Norðhvalur | Bowhead whale | Balaena mysticetus

Sléttbakur | North Atlantic Right whale | Eubalaena glacialis

Hrefna | Minke whale | Balaenoptera acutorostrata

Sandreyður | Sei whale | Balaenoptera borealis

Steypireyður | Blue whale | Balaenoptera musculus

Langreyður | Fin whale | Balaenoptera physalus

Hnúfubakur | Humpback whale | Megaptera novaeangliae

Toothed whales | Odontoceti

Toothed whales make up about 90% of all cetacean species and consists of dolphins, river dolphins, porpoises, white whales, sperm whales, and beaked whales. Most toothed whales are medium sized, 1–10 m and 50–10.000 kg, with the exception of the sperm whale which may grow up to 20 m and weigh 50 tonnes. They feed mainly on fish, including sand lance, capelin and various codfishes.

World: 80 species. Iceland: 15 species.

Icelandic toothed whales

Léttir | Short-beaked Common Dolphin | Delphinus delphis

Grindhvalur | Long-finned Pilot whale | Globicephala melas

Leifturhnýðir | Atlantic White-sided dolphin | Lagenorhynchus acutus

Blettahnýðir | White-beaked dolphin | Lagenorhynchus albirostris

Háhyrningur | Killer whale | Orcinus orca

Rákaskoppari | Striped dolphin | Stenella coeruleoalba

Stökkull | Common bottlenose dolphin | Tursiops truncates

Mjaldur | Beluga | Delphinapterus leucas

Náhvalur | Narwhal | Monodon monoceros

Hnýsa | Harbour porpoise | Phocoena phocaena

Búrhvalur | Sperm whale | Physeter catodon

Andarnefja | Northern bottlenose whale | Hyperoodon ampullatus

Norðsnjáldri | Sowerby’s beaked whale | Mesoplodon bidens

Króksnjáldri | Blainville’sbeaked whale | Mesoplodon densirostris

Gáshnallur | Cuvier’s beaked whale | Ziphius cavirostris

Killer whale

Killer whales are common in Icelandic waters, especially at the east and southeast coast. Males are up to 10 m long and weigh up to 10 tonnes. Females are up to 6 m long and may weigh 7 tonnes. The calf is 2–2.5 m long and about 200 kg at birth.

Killer whales are social animals, usually in groups of 10–15 animals, and often work together when hunting. They feed mainly on pelagic fish such as capelin and herring, but they also attack larger animals, including seals, sharks and baleen whales.

Fin-footed mammals

Fin-footed mammals, including the families of seals, sea lions and walrus, have evolved from terrestrial mammals and become adapted for swimming and diving. The limbs have developed into strong, flexible flippers for swimming. The fin-footed mammals can dive to as much as 100 m depth and some species can remain under water for over an hour. Pinnipeds go to land to mate and give birth to the pups.

About 55 species of this suborder is known worldwide. In Iceland, 7 species are known, of which two breed, the Grey seal Halichoerus grypus (útselur) seen here, and the Harbour seal Phoca vitulina (landselur).

Útselur | Grey seal | Halichoerus grypus (Phocidae)

The Grey seal and the Harbour seal are the only resident seal species in Iceland. The Grey seal is quite large, fully grown male can measure up to 2,4 m in length and weigh up to 275 kg. Females are smaller but reach higher age and up to 45 years old female Grey seals have been found in Iceland. The colour ranges between age and sexes from grey to almost black.

Grey seal is found in coastal areas in most parts of the N-Atlantic Ocean but usually keeps out of the Arctic Ocean. Grey seal feeds on fish and crustaceans, from surface down to 100 m depth.

The other five species are regular visitors and include: Ringed seal Phoca hispida (hringanóri), Harp seal Phoca groenlandicus (vöðuselur), Bearded seal Erignathus barbatus (kampselur), Hooded seal Crystophora cristata (blöðruselur) and Walrus Odobenus rosmarus (rostungur).

Helstu heimildir:

Villt Íslensk spendýr. Ritstj: Páll Hersteinsson og Guttormur Sigbjarnarson. Útg. Hið íslenska náttúrufræðifélag og Landvernd 1993.
Íslenskir hvalir fyrr og nú. Höf: Sigurður Ægisson, Jón Ásgeir í Aðaldal og Jón Baldur Hlíðberg. Útg. Forlagið 1997.

Hvalasafnið á HúsavíkMelrakkasetur ÍslandsVísindavefurinn

Consent Management Platform by Real Cookie Banner