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Penguins and polar bears: The wildlife at Earth’s poles


The earth’s polar regions are unique in many ways, from their geography to the birds and animals that live there.

Their different geographic characteristics have materially affected animal types and populations. The north polar region can be thought of as an ocean surrounded by land; and as a result it has many land animals. However, Antarctica is an icy continent surrounded by an ocean, consequently, its animals are largely avian and marine.

In the south polar islands and on the periphery of the continent, the penguin is the most recognisable resident, with ten species scattered across The Falkland islands, South Shetland, South Georgia and other more remote islands. The iconic Emperor penguin has the smallest breeding population, restricted to a few locations such as Snow Hill Island. The most populous are smaller Chinstrap and Adėlie penguins. Birds can be found anywhere there are nesting cliffs, and it has been estimated there are 100 million birds of different species breeding in the Antarctic.

Although on the periphery of the Antarctic region, the Falkland and South Georgia Islands are home to a wide range of different bird species and seals, with 70-80% of the world population of black browed albatross nesting there. Many species are unique to the islands, such as the Upland goose and Steamer Duck, with a large population of Striated Caracara (Johnny Rooks).

Although hunted, like the whales, close to extinction, elephant, leopard and other seals have largely recovered. Blue, Sperm, Humpback and Minke whales as well as the ubiquitous Orca can be found in increasing numbers, although still endangered. The largest mammal ever recorded, a female blue whale measuring 33.58m (110 feet) in length was landed at Grytviken in South Georgia. All of this avian and marine life depends critically on krill, a minute shrimp that forms the foundation of the regional food chain.

In north polar areas, the polar bear is the “brand”, and can be found across the region. The Svalbard Archipelago has more bears than people, and has been the go-to location since the late 19th century to see these animals, and until 1925, to hunt reindeer. This unique breed was almost wiped out until Norway introduced strict controls. Different parts of the Arctic are home to different animals, although the Arctic Fox can be found almost everywhere. Its lustrous and silky white winter coat was a favourite of furriers for a goodly part of the 20th century.

Greenland and the Canadian Arctic are home to Musk-ox, related to sheep and goats, but adapted to the harsh climate of the north. Peary Caribou are also common, but in smaller numbers than in earlier years. Whales are less prevalent here, having again been hunted almost to extinction, and bowheads and humpbacks are returning more slowly than in the south. Belugas (white whales) are quite common, and Canada has about 90% of the world’s population of Narwhals. Walrus have also made a comeback with large populations in Svalbard and Canada’s Foxe Basin, as have other seal species.

The Faroe Islands and Iceland, both considered to be outside the true polar north, are home to the Atlantic Puffin, with an estimated 3-4 million breeding pairs in Iceland. As in the south, wherever there are cliffs, there are vast colonies of birds. Greenland is home to the magnificent white tailed sea eagle, as well as the diminutive northern wheatear.

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