Effect of Sub-Polar Gyre, North Atlantic Oscillation and ambient temperature on size and abundance in the Icelandic Arctic fox

Pall Hersteinsson, Yoram Yom-Tov, Eli Geffen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Animals are exposed to environmental factors that influence their life history and body size. Here we used the Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) as an indicator of the complex links between largescale environmental variables that influence both marine and tundra trophic dynamics to demonstrate how they affect the fox's body size and abundance. The Arctic fox inhabits throughout Iceland, where it preys mainly on birds. We studied the effects of the Sub-Polar Gyre (SPG), winter and summer North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), mean annual winter and summer temperature, and geographic sector (eastern and western Iceland, which differ in their ecology) on variations in mandible size (6345 specimens) and body mass (2732 specimens) as well as abundance on the Arctic fox in Iceland. We found that (a) SPG index negatively affected male mandible length as well as body mass of both sexes. SPG was also negatively related to fox abundance. (b) Summer NAO had a negative effect on Arctic foxes, that is, cold summers were correlated with shorter mandibles and lower body mass. (c) Winter NAO had a significant negative effect (although weaker than that of summer NAO) on female mandible length, but not on body mass. (d) Summer temperature had a positive effect on female mandible length, but no effect on body mass. However, winter temperature had no effect on either the mandible or body mass. (e) Foxes in the eastern sector had shorter mandibles and were of lighter mass than those in the western sector. We suggest that climate conditions during the growth period of the young affected their final size both directly, by influencing energy metabolism for maintenance, but mainly through their effects on food availability. As far as we are aware, this is the first report that the SPG has an effect on vertebrates, let alone terrestrial ones.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1423-1433
Number of pages11
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2009


  • Arctic fox
  • Body size
  • Global change
  • Iceland
  • NAO
  • Sub-Polar Gyre
  • Vulpes lagopus


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