Iceland’s Wildlife: What Animals Are There on the Island?
For a relatively small and remote island with a population of only around 330,000 people, Iceland has diverse wildlife. From animals that walked from Europe during the last ice age to the occasional polar bear, Iceland's wildlife offers much to discover, as discussed below.
The Arctic fox
When Iceland was first settled in the ninth century, new inhabitants discovered that the only native land mammal was the Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus). These adorable foxes are believed to have walked over the frozen sea from other countries in the Northern Hemisphere during the so-called Little Ice Age, 800 years ago.
Since then, five distinct groups of these foxes have evolved, making them one of the most prevalent and well-known Icelandic animals. Although we associate the Arctic fox with a pristine snow-white coat, its fur actually changes color to blend in with its surroundings in different seasons.
Compared to the Arctic fox, the mink’s tenure as a feature of Icelandic wildlife has been relatively short. These fluffy mammals (Mustela vison) only arrived in 1931 when they were imported for the fur trade. However, some clever minks managed to escape, and wild dens were noticed within just five years. By the late 1960s, they’d established themselves across the country.
Since then, they’ve become something of a pest, preying on birds and small farm animals; they are often spotted in urban areas and are aggressive if approached. They’re also hard to catch, being nimble on land as well as great swimmers.
The Icelandic Horse
Among Iceland’s animals are many that arrived from mainland Europe. Chief among these is the Icelandic horse, which was propagated in isolation, making this a unique breed .
Much smaller than other horses, its average height is 47–55 inches, compared to the 60 inches of an average horse. Understandably, they’ve evolved to have thicker coats, but they’ve also developed two extra gaits. Whereas regular horses can walk, trot, and canter, an Icelandic horse can also "tölt" (a kind of running walk) and move at a "flying pace."
Photo: Karsten Bidstrup, Andrea Klaussner and Chalermkiat Seedokmai
As an island nation, it’s no surprise that Iceland is surrounded by shoals of aquatic animals. These include seals, dolphins, and whales. Previously, they’ve even included celebrity orcas like Keiko, the killer whale who starred in "Free Willy." No wonder 300,000 people join whale-watching trips in Iceland every year, where they’ve seen everything from the harbor porpoise to the huge blue whale.
In addition to the Icelandic horse, the country has an array of other unique animals, most of which were brought by the Vikings. These include Icelandic sheep, cattle, chickens, goats, and a particular breed of sheepdog. Unsurprisingly, most of these creatures have evolved to withstand the low temperatures in their new home.
It only happens a few times a decade, but sometimes polar bears drift from the Arctic on ice rafts and make it all the way to Iceland. Most recently, in 2016, a female polar bear reached the shores of Saudarkrokur.
These are just a few of the many animals that call Iceland home. When visiting this fascinating island, you’ll discover many more — 300 varieties of fish, a number of birds including the vibrant, orange-beaked puffin, various birds of prey, and much more. Explore the majestic countryside and discover the rich variety of Iceland’s wildlife.