Compared to some other countries, there are not a lot of wild mammals in Iceland. Iceland’s geographic isolation and northern location are probably to blame for this lack of variety in Icelandic wildlife.
The arctic fox is the only species that colonised Iceland on its own. Settlers of Iceland and farmers brought the other mammals with them, like horses, cows, goats and cats. Wild mammals include the American mink, mice and reindeer. Also, the ocean around Iceland is home to about 30 species of marine mammals.
In this article, we will tell you more about Icelandic wildlife. Can you spot them all during your vacation?
In the 18th century, reindeer were brought to Iceland from Norway for farming, but the Norwegian (nomadic) style of reindeer herding was not appealing to Icelanders, and they never domesticated the animals.
Reindeer seemed to fit in well in Iceland, and these days, you can still find about 3,000 of them in the eastern part of the country. They are high up in the mountains during summertime, but in wintertime they come down to the coast to graze on the grassland and are easy to spot.
Mt. Snæfell, Vesturöræfi and Brúaröræf are the best places to spot reindeer herds in summertime, and the coastal areas and lowlands in East Iceland are where it’s all at in wintertime.
Book this tour if you’re interested in a reindeer photo safari in East Iceland.
The arctic fox is the only land mammal in Iceland that reached the country without help of humans. During several ice ages, long before human settlement, arctic foxes walked over sea ice to reach Iceland.
Research from Durham University shows that arctic foxes also crossed an “ice bridge” to reach Iceland at the end of a period known as the Little Ice Age about 800 years ago, during which huge parts of the arctic seas were frozen. Arctic foxes could cross over to Iceland from other arctic regions quite easily, even though the travels were long and dreary.
You can find arctic foxes all over the country, in the highlands as well as lower coastal areas. They are pretty shy and are mostly active at night, so you have to be lucky to spot one in the wild. In isolated, uninhabited areas like Hornstrandir, arctic foxes feel more at ease around humans and are therefore easier to spot.
Marine mammals often spotted in the waters around Iceland are humpback whales, fin whales, minke whales, killer whales, white-beaked dolphins, harbour porpoises, harbour seals and grey seals. In total, there are 23 whale and dolphin species, and 6 seal species in Iceland (among which the walrus, that is spotted in Iceland from time to time).
Whale watching tours depart from Reykjavík, Reykjanes peninsula, Snæfellsnes peninsula and North Iceland. The success rate of these tours is high, and whale watching tours are a lot of fun. Read this article to get an impression of an adventure tour by RIB departing from Reykjavík’s harbour.
Puffins and other birds
Iceland has about 85 breeding bird species, and in total 388 different species have been spotted throughout the years.
Most tourists can’t wait to see the Atlantic puffin, known for its black and white suit and colourful beak. And even though we love puffins, there are so many other amazing birds in Iceland.
What do you think of razorbills, arctic terns, common snipes, northern fulmars, ptarmigans, gyrfalcons and even white-tailed eagles and snowy owls (though rare)? The list doesn’t end there – you can spot greater scaups, tufted ducks, gadwalls, common eider ducks, whooper swans and golden plovers. The golden plover is an especially loved bird, as each year it is welcomed as the herald of spring.
Polar bears are not a native Icelandic species, but sometimes they drift to Iceland on ice floes from East Greenland. The last time this happened was in July, 2016.
When there is a sighting of a polar bear, the police are called and they usually kill it, as polar bears are a threat to the public and livestock. Unfortunately, rescue missions to return them to Greenland are difficult and expensive.