High Stakes Fox Trot
In the far, frigid north, the difference between life and death for the arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) occasionally comes down to thievery. These resourceful residents of Russia’s Wrangel Island feed primarily on lemmings (Dicrostonyx vinogradovi), but they are also relentless opportunists looking to capitalize on any meal that presents itself. The annual arrival of nesting snow geese (Chen caerulescens) is a bountiful time. Each spring, thousands of geese descend upon the island to lay their eggs (up to six per pair) in simple nests scraped out of the tundra. With little to protect their future offspring besides their own fierce resistance, the snow geese must remain vigilant against intruders. But foxes are nothing if not cunning—and persistent. With as many as a dozen hungry pups to feed back in the den, a pair of foxes might spend several hours each day patrolling the snow goose rookery in search of opportunity. Foxes on Wrangel Island have been known to steal as many as 40 goose eggs per day—caching whatever they or the pups don’t eat immediately and consuming the hidden eggs in the days, weeks, and months to come. The calorie-rich eggs represent far more than tasty snacks for the island’s foxes. Lemming populations are notoriously cyclical. When they’re abundant, fox populations grow in response. But periodically, the rodent populations crash, and the foxes must rely more heavily than ever on snow goose nest raids for their sustenance. The stakes couldn’t be higher for the individuals involved in these skirmishes, but nature seems to have struck a sustainable balance on Wrangel Island that keeps fox pups fed and flocks of snow geese filling the air.
Wrangel Island, Russia
Sergey Gorshkov was born in a remote village in Siberia and has been photographing wildlife in the region for many years. He is the founding member of the Russian Union of Wildlife Photographers, and has received several international photography awards for his work. He has a particular passion for the Russian Arctic, and is in the process of documenting the entirety of this challenging landscape from east to west.
Katie Jewett is a Bay Area science writer, previously at the California Academy of Sciences and now at the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions, where she loves learning something new about our planet every day. Previously, she spent winters in the Colorado Rockies and summers living and working on the water.