Arctic foxes grow “gardens” on their dens, researchers find

Arctic fox

We may have many associations with foxes—tricksters, family protectors, survivors—but rarely do we think of them as gardeners. Yet biologists around Churchill, Manitoba, have found that Arctic foxes’ dens are essentially lawns full of vegetation, a contrast to the stark tundra that surrounds them.

So how are foxes getting the their gardens to grow? By composting, obviously. The organic material left to decompose around the foxes’ dens (that is both the foxes’ own waste and the remains of the animals they kill for food) provides nutrients like nitrogen to the soil, which helps plants thrive. Grasses, willows, and even flowers are known to bloom on a fox’s den.

Arctic fox at entrance of den
Photo by National Geographic
Foxes’ dens are so lush, even creatures like lemmings, who foxes hunt, like to live near them.

The biologists who authored the paper outlining these findings referred to foxes as “ecosystem engineers.” The growth of plants has wide-reaching effects beyond simply offering a spot of green in the tundra. It also attracts herbivores and scavengers, who in turn provide food for other animals. In short, Arctic foxes are facilitators of an entire food chain system.

James Roth, a University of Manitoba biologist and one of the authors of the article, noted that the dens are very noticeably different from the landscape surrounding them. “It’s really striking. You can see these dens in August as a bright green spot from a kilometre away,” he told the CBC.

Grassy fox den from above
Photo by Jackie Verstege
U of M masters student Jackie Verstege took this photo of an Arctic fox den from above.

Roth also told the CBC that there are about 100 fox dens along the Hudson Bay Coast, and that some are hundreds of years old. Digging a new den in the frozen ground is a big undertaking, so foxes need to reuse their dens, meaning many fox “gardens” also have a long history.

It’s a great reminder that ecosystems are often more complex and amazing than we ever could have imagined, and even in the Arctic, life finds a way to thrive.

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