Fauna (wildlife, animals) Franz-Josef-Land

Life in arctic seas is far more abundant than on shore: several humpback whales just south of Franz Josef Land. Such huge animals need enormous quantities of food, indicating with their presence the productivity of arctic seas.


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Wildlife in general

With the arctic fox as the only real land mammal, and only 14 bird species as regular breeders, vertebrates are present on land in Franz Josef Land with only very few species: typical for a truely high arctic region - and most of the birds are connected to the sea, coming ashore only for breeding. Moreover, most of these species, are present in the archpelago only during summer. The low number of species is partly compensated by a high number of individuals in some of the species - especially kittiwakes, Brunnich´s guillemots and little auks, but also fulmars, are abundant around the isles. In addition to the few regular breeders, there is a longer list of rarer birds, breeding here only occasionally, coming here without breeding, some also just coincidentally as errants.

In the sea, life is far more manifold (also typical for the arctic): more than 30 fish species, at least 6 whale species roaming also the sounds (and further whale species out in the open sea around the islands), 3 seal species, walruss and polar bear are the typical vertebrates strongly connected to the sea, found in the waters of Franz Josef Land. In addition, there is of course a huge range of marine non-vertebrate species, too - be it on the sea bottom (especially from a few metres down, where drift ice does not scrap life away regularly) or just floating in the water like the masses of plankton creatures on which the bigger animals feed. The drift ice itself is an enormously important biotop, with algae growing on its lower side as soon as light returns in spring, and small amphepods and others grazing on the algae, themselves harvested again by some of the fish (especially polar cod) and some of the birds. By the birds feeding on the sea, nutrients are brought with their droppings onto the land on their way to their breeding places, which are an important fertilizer for the much more sparse plant life ashore: accordingly, the lushest vegetation is found under bird cliffs and also the few foxes depend heavily on supplies from the sea: birds, eggs or in winter remains of killed seals left behind by a polar bear out on the ice near the coast. The polar bear itself lives mostly of seals and spends most of its life out on the sea ice, why it is counted as a marine mammal by the biologists. Arctic sea life is by far more productive, and in addition an important assistant for live on land.

All species have in common the successful development of survival strategies for the extremely differing living conditions in the course of the year: ample food in the light period - but during the dark months, food production breaks down because the plants (algae, etc.) at the bottom of the food chain cannot produce organic matter without the energy of light. Typical strategies are wintering as practically inactive forms (eggs, etc.) for a large part of the small non-vertebrates, or migration over long distances (almost all birds and most whales) to more supportive environments for the winter and then returning again in the light season for reproduction, taking advantage of the then good supply with food. Those species staying, live partly of reserves built up over summer, live of carrion or of other limited remaining sources of food.

During the Atlanticum warm period following the last big ice age, the climate of Franz Josef Land was milder than today for several thousand years. During this period, an own local reindeer population existed on the islands, of which some occasionally found old antlers are about the only reminiscents.

As frequently mentioned in the climate change coverage of our time, climatic changes are often more drastic in the arctic, than in other regions. This has been the case also in the past. As climate changes often are faster than the speed of genetic adaption, many species existing in the arctic today, must have survived drastic climate changes also in the past - otherwise, they would not exist anymore. During the Atlanticum period after the last big ice age, there may have been very little to no summer sea ice in much of the Arctic Ocean for several thousand years - and to a lower extent possibly also in Roman times or during the mediaeval climatic optimum, while during the so-called "little ice-age" (ca. 1400-1850), both sea ice and glaciers increased dramatically. With the current warming since about 1850, to which man is likely to add his share, especially the sea ice seems to retreat again. On land, the picture is more mixed in Franz Josef Land: some glaciers retreat, while others actually gain thickness. On average, the extent of the glaciers is probably still bigger than 600 years ago.

During much of the last big ice age - ending about 12000 years ago - there were probably no vertebrates in the area, at all, as the whole archipelago and the Barents Sea were covered by an enormous ice cap, while the Arctic Ocean to the north was covered all year round with a thick layer of sea ice - thus giving no basis of living to seals, walrusses, whales or polar bears.
Also the strong post ice age climatic fluctuations had their quickly changing effects onto the fauna of Franz Josef Land: during the Atlanticum, th islands were probably considerably less glaciated and summers milder than today, supporting a more extended and more productive tundra vegetation, which was the basis for a local reindeer population over several thousand years, which probably immigrated originally over the winter ice, and which disappeared again, when a cooling climate led to harsher conditions about 4000 years ago.
The species found in Franz Josef Land today, seem to have survived these climatic changes of the past - most likely with considerable changes in numbers and areas populated. Therefore, arctic species have proven to be able to cope with changes. The current situation may be different, though, as the warming is combined with other factors like pollution, and human impact on climate may turn out to result in more drastic results than earlier natural post ice age changes. The effects on the arctic species differ: some also profit (geese, potentially reindeer) from a warming, while others are under pressure, with smaller habitats and lower numbers as the consequence. The swings of the past indicate, however, that the outcome of the current warming on certain species is not as clear as sometimes claimed.


In 2011 an until then unknown major breeding colony of ivory gulls was discovered during a touristic cruise of the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC EXPLORER on the east side of Alexandra Land - so far the only known major breeding site of ivory girls in a rock face rising right from the sea.
Walrusses at close range: in water, these animals are very agile and possibly even too curious: the air chamer of a Zodiac will hardly survive an inquisitive hit by a walrus tusk. Accordingly risk-taking is the behaviour of the enthusiastic photographers standing in the Zodiac: should an unobserved walrus from the other side give the boat a sudden push, these persons will hardly be able to maintain their balance but are likely to land in the icy water between the enormous animals.
Young bearess ashore - as the water is free of ice, the zodiacs with the observers can back out immediately, if needed.
Polar bear mother with cubs on drift ice at almost 83°N north of Franz Josef Land - the perspective from above tells that the photographer was most likely standing safely on the deck of a ship.
Young black guillemots in their juvelile plumage next to a drifting glacier ice growler.

Wildlife Observation in Franz Josef Land

Franz Josef Land is an exciting destination for both scientific and touristic wildlife studies:

  • Good chances for sightings of the very rare Greenland Whales (both in the Barents Sea just south of the archipelago and in the sounds - though no guarantee for every cruise), as well as for humpbacks, belugas and others.
  • Very good chances for observation of polar bears, both on sea ice (if available during the period of travel - in extreme summers like 2012, the ice border may retreat to far north of the islands, just like sometimes in Spitsbergen - trying to reach it is then on expenses of other interests within the archipelago), and also on land (especially in summers with little sea ice).
  • Very good chances for observation of walrusses - on ice, resting on land, in the water - and here, contrary to Spitsbergen, with many females and young. Because of the young, groups of walrus are much more sensitive to disturbance (panicky escape into the water with possible trampling to death of young as a result), making very careful and patient approaches, and a non-disturbing way of approaching, necessary.
  • Relatively big numbers of ivory gulls (pagophila eburnea), including interesting breeding colonies of ivory gulls.
  • Rubini Rock (Opens internal link in current windowHooker Island) is one of the most spectacular breeding rocks of the arctic - not least also because of its rock structures and the colours.
  • Small chance for observation of narwhales
  • Small chance for obesrvation of some of the rarest arctic birds like Ross´s Gull (Rhodostethia rosea) or Sabine´s Gull (Xema sabini) - probably more likely after the end of their breeding period in northern Siberia, when some of them fly to the high Arctic for the late summer.

Ways of contributing to research: Still, a lot of research is needed in Franz Josef Land and only very few people are around here to make observations - therefore, in some cases observations dating back to Nansen and other pioneers are still quoted, because there have been hardly any observers in a number of locations, since. Therefore, even expedition cruising can contribute with valuable observation reports to the research on the fauna of the archipelago, both with numbers of single records, as well as bigger discoveries, like the until then unknown substantial iviry gull breeding colony found on the east side of Alexandra Land in 2011.


Period of travel for Wildlife Observation

The main breeding period of the birds is June to late July / mid-August - during this period, the bird nesting colonies are occupied (Kittiwakes also later). Afterwards, the birds stay in the archipelago, though, throughout most of August, many even well into September.
For an approach of bird cliffs by zodiac, the water under it has to be navigable - drift ice can prevent an approach by zodiacs, solid thicker ice also by ship. A good compromise between breeding activity and navigability is late July, even early August, though with big differences from year to year.
Polar bears, walrusses and ivory gulls will be met normally on all cruises with several days within the archipelago. In the early season, chances are better to see these animals also on sea ice, which by then is usually still widely spread between the islands. With less ice there, especially in the later season, these animals are likely to be found more on land, usually at the shores.
Whether an ice border further north will be approached in addition, depends also on its distance from the archipelago, and thereby on the extra time to be spent on this, as this will be lacking for other activities within the archipelago. While the early season means often better chances to have bears and walrusses also on ice, this very sea ice can mean at the same time restrictions on other activities like landings or getting further around to the remoter parts of the archipelago and possibly hindering zodiac operations.

Early departures are thereby more suitable for travellers mainly interested in the wildlife both on ice and ashore, who in return are willing to accept possible stronger restrictions regarding accessibility of more remote parts of the archipelago and also possible limitations on landings due to hindering ice.
Late season: Though the breeding of the birds ends mostly by mid-August (kittiwakes a bit later), all species stay within the archipelago well into late August, many even into September. With some very rare high arctic species like Ross´s Gull, observation chances (though faint) may even increase, as some of these migrate north after having finished breeding on the north Siberian mainland. Due to usually less ice, both reaching and then landing on also more remote islands in the high north and east is more likely in the late season. As the sea ice dwindles in the course of summer, polar bears and walrusses are more likely to be met ashore near the coastline. The later season is interesting not least for travellers with a wider interest (exceeding wildlife only), as getting around and landing becomes easier and less snow of the previous winter is left ashore.

All in all, the choice of the period of travel depends on individual interests - with conditions within Franz Josef Land following statistically the above mentioned aspects, but with big variations from year to year.

Last Modification: 23.12.2012