The Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) is the only species of land mammal native to Iceland and is believed to have lived on the island since the last Ice Age. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) occasionally reach Iceland on drift ice, but they have never colonised the island and are listed as vagrants. Iceland lacks pack ice, which is essential for the species to hunt seals. Other mammals found in the wild have been brought to Iceland by humans, either deliberately or inadvertently. Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) were introduced in the eighteenth century, and mink (Mustela vison) were imported for fur farming in the 1930s but escaped and began breeding in the wild. The wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus) and house mice (Mus musculus) are believed to have been introduced accidentally by Iceland’s human settlers. Mice populations became established in the late ninth or early tenth century. Rats (Rattus norvegicus and Rattus rattus) were also unwittingly introduced by humans during and after the late eighteenth century. Farm animals and pets (e.g., rabbits) that have been released or escaped into the wild after 1750 are not considered as native Icelandic wildlife.
Marine mammal fauna is richer and more diverse than the terrestrial one. Two seal species, the grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) and harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) pup in Iceland. Four other seal species are regular visitors to Iceland: the Arctic ringed seal (Pusa hispida), harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus), hooded seal (Cystophora cristata), and bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus). Walruses (Odobenus rosmarus) also occasionally visit Iceland.
Whales are highly migratory creatures. Few populations dwell in Icelandic waters on regular basis. A total of 23 whale species have been identified within Iceland’s exclusive 200 nautical mile economic zone, many of which are a rare sight as they remain in deep waters and rarely come close to the continental shelf.
Mammals are classified at the species level where a total of 21 fact sheets are available.
Icelandic mammals are redlisted according to IUCN criteria. There are five species on the Icelandic Red List for Mammals, all of which are marine mammals. Two species are listed as data deficient (DD).
The Icelandic Institute of Natural History conducts regular monitoring of the native Arctic fox and wood mice populations. The IINH, in collaboration with other Icelandic agencies and institutes, is responsible for keeping a database on whale strandings. People are encouraged to contact the IINH to notify us of stranded whales.
Other wildlife studies take place at:
- Keldur – Institute for Experimental Pathology (parasites and diseases),
- The Arctic Fox Centre (Arctic fox),
- West Iceland Nature Research Centre (mink),
- East Iceland Nature Research Centre (reindeer),
- The Icelandic Seal Center (seals),
- Marine and Freshwater Research Institute (marine mammals), and
- The University of Iceland’s Research Centre in Húsavík (marine mammals).
Páll Hersteinsson, ed. 2004. Íslensk spendýr. Reykjavík: Vaka-Helgafell.
Páll Hersteinsson & Guttormur Sigbjarnarson, eds. 1993. Villt íslensk spendýr. Reykjavík: Hið íslenska náttúrufræðifélag & Landvernd.