Known as the land of fire and ice–Iceland has some incredible landscapes formed by the island’s rich geological history. Amongst the backdrops of volcanoes, glaciers, mountains, and coastlines, Iceland’s unique wildlife is incredibly adapted to their environments. From the seafaring puffin to the playful harbor seal and the majestic reindeer, here’s a look at some incredible Icelandic animals!
There is no animal more iconically Icelandic than the adorable puffin! Iceland is home to the world’s largest puffin colony and is known as the “puffin-watching capital of the world”. Locals and travelers alike flock to seaside cliffs all over the country to see these cute and colorful birds during nesting season. Puffin tours are so popular, visitors to the country often plan their whole trip around them!
Puffins are known for their unique appearance and comical way of walking. When they are not waddling around the cliffs, they take to the sea to catch fish. Puffins can dive to an incredible depth of up to 200 feet!
Puffins spend most of their lives at sea and only come ashore to breed and nest. May through August is puffin nesting season, and when these birds are most likely to be spotted. Puffins are monogamous and mate for life, up to 20 years. Both puffin parents share nesting responsibilities, taking turns incubating the egg. Once hatched, the baby puffins are ready to take flight and go out on their own in about six weeks.
These birds are so ingrained in Icelandic culture that their likeness is displayed throughout the country on signs, statues, and artwork. Almost every shop sells at least one type of puffin stuffed animal or figurine. There are also full-blown puffin shops, solely dedicated to this whimsical bird with all forms of puffin art, toys, and memorabilia.
The Arctic fox is Iceland’s only native mammal. It is believed to have crossed over the frozen sea from Scandinavia during the last Ice Age–over 2 million years ago! Besides the very rare misplaced polar bear that floats over from Alaska once a decade or so, the Arctic fox is Iceland’s only predator.
While the Arctic fox can be found all over Iceland’s countryside, most of them live in the Westfjords–a large peninsula in northwest Iceland. This region is full of birds, a primary food source for the Arctic fox. The Arctic fox is an opportunistic feeder, often helping itself to bird eggs whenever it can. They will also hunt birds and fish when necessary.
The Arctic fox is uniquely adapted for surviving in frigid temperatures. Its multiple layers of thick fur and high percentage of body fat keep the Arctic fox warm throughout even the coldest winters.
While the occasional hiker may spot an Arctic fox in the wild, they are typically shy and elusive–avoiding humans at all costs. The best chance to see an Arctic fox is a visit to the Arctic Fox Center, a nonprofit research center in the Westfjords. Here visitors can learn about the Arctic fox and meet Ingi and Móri–resident foxes that were rescued as pups and unable to readapt to the wild.
While not native to Iceland, reindeer now make up a big part of Iceland’s wildlife population. Found roaming throughout Eastfjords–a remote region in eastern Iceland, herds of wild reindeer have a unique history of how they came to be.
Reindeer were originally brought to the island in the 1700s from Norway. They were released in several areas throughout the country, intended as livestock. It was believed they would thrive in Iceland’s climate however they did not. Only the reindeer in the Eastfjords survived. Efforts to domesticate the reindeer as a livestock source were abandoned and wild herds began to thrive.
Today, an estimated 7000 wild reindeer roam the highlands of the Eastfjords, grazing on plants and lichen. Spotting a wild reindeer in Iceland is on many travelers’ bucket lists but they are not easy to find. During the summer they almost exclusively remain at higher elevations. In the winter they return to the lowlands to escape the coldest temperatures and can occasionally be spotted from the road in remote areas.
Iceland is famous for whale watching, its mix of colder North Atlantic and Arctic waters are prominent whale feeding grounds. While there are species that can be found year-round, none are as beloved as the beluga. Beluga whales are native to the Arctic but during their winter migration, they can be spotted in the oceans off Iceland’s northern coast.
Nicknamed “canaries of the sea”, beluga whales are known for their unique “songs” or vocalizations that can often be heard from afar. They are also endeared for their social personality and permanent “smile”.
In addition to the wild beluga whales that can be found in Icelandic waters, Iceland is also home to the world’s first beluga whale sanctuary. The Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary provides a natural home to rescued beluga whales in Klettsvik Bay.
The two resident whales–Little Grey and Little White were rescued from an overseas marine animal theme park. While not able to return to the wild after a life in captivity, they can now live as close to their natural environment as possible. The sanctuary hopes to be able to rescue and retire more beluga whales from marine mammal parks around the world.
Harbor seals can be found throughout the coastal waters of the entire island of Iceland. They are also most notably local celebrities at Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon where they can be seen playfully frolicking on the large floating icebergs. Much to the delight of tourists that often visit the lagoon to kayak.
While they are now protected, the harbor seal population in Iceland has declined significantly since the 1970s. Some estimates suggest over 70% of the original population is gone. While no one cause has been identified, it is believed to be due to fishing line entanglements, changing ocean conditions, and hunting. Harbor seals are now listed as a critically endangered species by the Icelandic Institute of Natural History.
While not truly wildlife, no list of Icelandic animals could be complete without mentioning the country’s famous sheep! Icelandic sheep are found pretty much everywhere throughout the country that has some sort of pasture. Where there is green, there are sheep!
Icelandic sheep were brought over from Norway sometime between the 9th and 10th centuries. They have been a livestock staple for the country ever since. The sheep roam the countryside, mountains, and meadows until the pre-winter roundup known as Rettir. Every September farmers round up their sheep for the winter. It can often take a few days as the sheep roam freely and can stray quite far from their flock.
With the exception of winter when they are housed in barns to keep warm, driving through Iceland’s countryside will almost always feature sheep sightseeing!