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Auyuittuq National Park of Canada




Eight species of terrestrial mammals are found in Auyuittuq National Park, along with six species of marine mammals. Additional terrestrial and marine species may be found on the Cumberland Peninsula and in the Cumberland Sound and Davis Strait regions adjacent to the park.

Terrestrial Mammals

The most common terrestrial mammals in Auyuittuq are the arctic hare, arctic fox, ermine, and brown lemming. Less common species include the collared lemming and barren-ground caribou. Gray wolves and red foxes are also present, but are rare. The presence of wolverines is suspected, but has never been confirmed. None of the terrestrial mammals hibernate. They remain active year-round, even during the coldest months of winter.

Lemming (Avinga)

There are two species of lemmings - brown lemmings, and Peary land collared lemmings. As herbivores, the lemmings are dependent on tundra vegetation for forage. They are the foundation of the food chain for carnivores, and are the most important food source for snowy owls, ermines, and arctic foxes. Lemming populations rise and fall in cycles of approximately four years. This cycle has a strong influence on the distribution and breeding success of their predators. Lemmings are not often seen in the park, but their nests, runways and tunnels can be found wherever there is vegetated tundra.

Arctic Hare (Ukaliq)

Levret © Mike Ellsworth

Arctic hares are larger than their southern counterparts, but have smaller ears - both are adaptations that help conserve body heat. The hares can weigh up to 5 kilograms! Their brownish-grey summer coats turn white for the winter, except for the tips of their ears which remain black. In the past, Inuit hunting for seals used the white winter fur of the hares to camouflage the sails on their boats, making them resemble icebergs. Arctic hares are present throughout the park.

Arctic Fox (Tiriganiaq)

Arctic foxes are pure white in the winter and grey-brown in summer. Smaller than red foxes, they weigh between 2.5 - 5 kilograms. They range throughout the park, travelling extensively in search of food. Their diet includes lemmings, hares, ptarmigan, bird eggs, and carrion. Arctic fox are known to follow polar bears and scavenge on the remains of their kills. The species has a high-pitched bark and will sometimes make hissing or screaming noises. Caution! Arctic foxes can carry rabies - always avoid live foxes, and refrain from handling their carcasses. Arctic fox numbers seem to rise and fall with lemming populations.

Barren-ground Caribou (Tuktu)

Formerly more abundant in the park, today they are quite rare. There are small herds of barren-ground caribou in the northern and western portions of the park, but they are rarely seen in Akshayuk Pass.

Caribou © Christian Kimber

Well-adapted to the arctic, caribou have a double-layered coat - a short thick inner layer of hair, and an outer layer of long hollow hairs. This double layer provides excellent insulation in the winter, and also helps provide buoyancy when the animals swim during their seasonal migrations. Caribou have rounded hooves that spread apart as they walk, providing good traction on the spongy tundra as well as on rocky terrain and ice.

Caribou are an important food source for Inuit. The hides are used for winter clothing and boots.

Ermine (Tiriaq)

Ermine © Christian Kimber

Small but fierce, ermines are the most common mammalian predators of the arctic tundra. They feed mostly on lemmings, birds, and fish, but can tackle prey up to the size of a young arctic hare. Ermines are brown in the summer, but their fur turns white in the winter except for a black-tipped tail. They build their dens in rock piles. In Auyuittuq, ermines may be seen throughout the park, from sea level to the high alpine areas.

Marine Mammals

Polar Bear © Parks Canada

Of the 13 marine mammal species that occur in the waters of Davis Strait and Cumberland Sound, only six have been confirmed in the park's coastal fiords: ringed seal, bearded seal, narwhal, beluga whale, orca, and polar bear. Other species that could venture into park fiords include walrus, hooded seal, harp seal, harbour seal, bowhead whale, minke whale, fin whale, and blue whale. Marine mammals are an important part of the park's ecosystem, as well as a vital food source for Inuit. Many of the marine mammal species are migratory, moving away from the coast to the ice-free regions of Davis Strait and the north Atlantic Ocean.

The distribution of marine mammals is strongly influenced by the annual cycle of sea ice formation. With extensive ice cover for most of the year, open water occurs near Auyuittuq only from late June to November. Fast ice is the first ice to form. It begins to form in the fiords and along the shoreline in late October. As the ice cover develops, ringed seals create a network of breathing holes that are maintained throughout the winter. When the ice is stable enough, polar bears quickly move onto it to begin hunting seals after their long summer fast. The forming ice also forces bearded seals, narwhals, orcas, and belugas from coastal areas into the deeper open waters of Davis Strait and Cumberland Sound. In some years, when the ice forms quickly, whales can become trapped and will die.

Ice break-up occurs in the fiords in late June or early July. Seals disperse at break-up, and polar bears move into areas such as fiords or bays where the ice remains the longest. Polar bears spend their summers onshore, usually in areas near persistent ice cover.

Polar Bear (Nanuq)

The great white bear is the most powerful predator of the arctic. In fall, winter and spring, non-denning polar bears spend most of their time out at sea, favoring areas of broken pack ice and the edges of fast ice. These areas provide the best hunting for seals which are a staple of the polar bears' diet. The eastern coast of Baffin Island, which includes the northern fiords of Auyuittuq, is an important denning area and polar bears may be encountered in these areas. Please read the section on polar bear safety for important safety information.

Pregnant female bears remain on land in the fall and dig maternity dens in deep snow banks in October or November. Their young - one or two cubs - are born in early January. Female bears remain at their dens with their offspring until mid-March or early April, at which point they move back onto the ice to resume hunting seals. In late spring, as the ice melts and blows offshore, polar bears are forced back onto land, usually staying close to the coastline waiting for ice to form. Summer is a time of fasting, but polar bears will eat seaweed, grasses, moss, fish, eggs, birds, small mammals, and carcasses as they are encountered.

Ringed Seal (Natsiq)

Ringed seal © Parks Canada

Ringed seals are the most common and widespread species of marine mammal in the arctic. As year-round inhabitants of southeastern Baffin Island, they are found in all of the park's fiords. Traditionally, they were the main staple of the Inuit diet, and today ringed seals remain an important food source.

Ice conditions have a strong influence on the movements and distribution of seals. In winter they are limited to areas of the sea ice where breathing holes can be maintained. Their birth dens are hollowed out from snowdrifts associated with pressure ridges, or from bulges in the fast ice. Single pups are born in late March or early April, and are abandoned within two months of their birth after being weaned. In spring, summer and fall, the seals are found in areas where their diet of fish is abundant and easily caught.

Narwhal (tuugaalik or allanguaq)

Narwhal © Canada Wildlife Service

Narwhals grow up to four metres in length, and weigh nearly two tonnes. The male narwhals are best known for their distinctive, single ivory tusk. Occasionally, they may grow a double tusk. Females sometimes grow a tusk as well, but it is always short. It is not known why narwhals have the tusk, or what purpose it serves, although they have been observed to use them in social displays.

Narwhals feed on squid, turbot, arctic cod, shrimp, and octopus. In winter, the narwhals migrate away from the fast ice near land to the open waters of Baffin Bay, Davis Strait and Hudson Strait. In spring they migrate to the north Baffin region. They return to the Auyuittuq area by September or October, where they may be seen in the park's northern fiords. Inuit hunt narwhals for muktuk and meat.

Beluga Whale (Qinalugaq or Qilalugaq)

Historically dubbed by whalers as "sea canaries", the snow-white belugas are highly sociable and vocal, and are often seen frolicking together in pods, or groups. This is the most common species of whale observed in the park area during periods of open water. The South Baffin belugas are resident year-round. In winter they move only as far out to sea as is necessary due to ice.

In early summer, belugas congregate in estuaries and certain bays to feed and molt. Their diet includes arctic cod, turbot, shrimp, squid, arctic char, and marine worms. Belugas are hunted by Inuit for muktuk and meat.