Animal species in Svalbard have adapted to the severe conditions of the Arctic. Many of them endure extreme cold, periods of lack of nourishment and long Arctic night.
Svalbard has two species of land mammals: Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) and the Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus).
As for the polar bear, it spends most of its time on the ice and is thus considered a marine mammal.
The stout, short-legged Svalbard reindeer is a distinct breed of reindeer, not found anywhere else. Its exterior is well suited for life in the Arctic and prevents it from heat loss during winter when it is fairly inactive. Unlike other breeds of reindeer it usually does not live in herds, but tends to appear alone or with some few other individuals. The animals are not very wary and often stroll between houses in the settlements. During winter only the females have antlers, but during summer the males also grow antlers, often of impressive dimensions. When Norway assumed sovereignty over Svalbard in 1925, the reindeer population was in decline due to hunting. The species was instantly protected and has since recovered in numbers. There are currently some 10,000 animals spread out across the archipelago, though the largest density is to be found on Nordensköld Land. Restricted hunting is allowed in some areas here.
The dainty Arctic fox is common almost all over Svalbard. Its diet consists of seabirds, eggs and carrion. It tends to tag along behind the polar bear helping itself to the leftovers of the bear's haul. In spring, seal pups are an important nourishment. It catches and kills them on the ice in the fjords. The Arctic fox can cover large distances looking for food, and it roams way out onto the ice floes. A fox tagged in Svalbard was found as far away as in Novaja Zemlja, in Russia. There are two colours for Arctic fox: the "blue" variety has a uniformly silvery blue pelt all year round and is fairly rare, whereas the "white" fox has a greyish brown back, and an off-white abdomen during summer, and is all white during winter.
When Svalbard was discovered, the bowhead whale was common. The population may have amounted to some 25,000 individuals when commercial whaling started in 1611. After three hundred years of whaling, the bowhead was virtually extinct in Svalbard. A few rare sightings indicate that the occasional animal still exists here.
The walrus (Odobenus rosmarus), Svalbard's largest seal species, almost suffered a similiar fate as the bowhead whale. It was hunted because of its tusks, and the blubber was used to make oil, whereas the extremely tough hide was used for ropes and leather. When the species was first protected, in 1952, there were only a few hundred individuals left in Svalbard. The walrus is indeed an imposing creature: Big males can be up to four metres long and weigh as much as two tonnes, about the size of a car! The animals are companionable and tend to congregate in groups of hundreds. They usually prefer shallow waters where they can eat shellfish and whatever else is to be found on the ocean floor. The population currently numbers several thousand individuals and there is much to indicate it is rapidly growing.
The Polar Bear
The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) has been unconditionally protected since 1973. The polar bear hunt never had as disastrous consequences as did the hunt for the previously mentioned marine mammals. The polar bear is one of the world's largest predators, but its weight varies considerably over the year and from individual to individual: in the autumn the animals put on a great deal of weight, whereas they are generally lean in summer. A big male may weigh nearly 800 kg, but males that are only half this size are more common. Females are smaller than males, having half their weight. The polar bear's staple food is ring seal and bearded seal. The polar bear is a common sight now in Svalbard. The Barents Sea population is estimated to 1900-3600 individuals. Protection of polar bear and walrus illustrates how one can reach desired results by good management.
Seal and Whale
The ring seal is the most common marine mammal in Svalbard. It is the smallest of all our seals and it will often be sighted dotting the ice on the fjords in spring. The bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus), on the other hand, is the largest seal in Svalbard except for the walrus. This indolent animal is not as common as the ring seal, but often sighted in areas with shallow water, all over Svalbard. The most common of the whales is the beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas). This four metre long animal can occasionally be spotted as it swims close to the shores in small groups. Adults are white, whereas youngsters are the colour of shale.
The Arctic Char
The Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus) is the northernmost of the world's salmonidae and the sole freshwater fish in Svalbard. It lives in lakes and rivers throughout most of Svalbard. Some only live in freshwater (landlocked), whereas others migrate between freshwater and ocean (anadromous).
In the high Arctic, there are relatively few bird species compared to places further south. Yet, although species may be few, the number of individuals can be numerous. There are three to five million nesting seabirds in Svalbard, and some of the world's largest colonies are to be found on Bjørnøya and Hopen, in Storfjord and on the west coast of Spitsbergen. In several places Brünnich's guillemot (Uria lomvia) nests in colonies of 100,000 couples. The bird cliffs clearly illustrate the delicate balance of interchange between sea and land. At sea, the birds collect considerable amounts of small fry and crustaceans with which they feed their young.
Unlike most mountain flanks in Svalbard, those of the bird cliffs tend to be verdant due to the fertilising effect of guano. The vegetation there benefits herbivorous species such as geese and Svalbard reindeer.
The diminutive little auk is the most numerous of all the bird species here. In summer there are presumably more than a million couples in Svalbard. It nests in large colonies on screes and cliffs all over the archipelago, but is particularly numerous along the west coast of Spitsbergen. Swarms of these birds circle over the colony before they set off to sea to find zooplankton.
Apart from the occasional visiting snow owl (Nyctea scandiaca) and the gyr falcon (Falco rusticolus) there are no predating birds on the archipelago, probably because of the absence of small rodents. The glaucus gull (Larus hyperboreus) helps itself to eggs, to young birds and even to adult little auks, so it plays a part very much akin to that of the predator.
The Svalbard Ptarmigan
Most birds leave the islands in winter, setting off to sea or migrating towards the south. The only sedentary bird is the Svalbard ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus hyperboreus). The ptarmigans in Svalbard are fairly confident. You can get quite close to them because they do not perceive humans as a threat. Yet ptarmigans are favoured game during the autumn hunting season. The bird that migrates farthest a field is the Arctic tern (Sterne paradisaea). Some of them even spend the winter in the Antarctic. The only warbler is the hardy little snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) which tends to appear and start singing in early April, to the delight of the local residents.
You can read more about the birds in Svalbard on http://www.svalbardbirds.com/