Animals in Iceland

Animals in Iceland

Animals in Iceland

A Guide to Domesticated & Wild Species

When most people think of traveling to Iceland, wildlife is probably not their primary consideration. Located in the North Atlantic, the remote island is better known for its Viking history, rugged and diverse landscapes, dramatic waterfalls and rich Icelandic culture.

But while it may not have the polar bears of Arctic Canada and Norway or the Grizzlies, moose and other dynamic megafauna you’ll find in Alaska, watching wildlife is still one of our favorite things to do in Iceland.

Animals in Iceland are basically divided into two main groups, domesticated farm animals and wild animals. And while there aren’t many endemic Icelandic wildlife species to speak of on land, there are quite a few fascinating introduced species (including the famous Icelandic horses and a huge herd of reindeer).

The frigid waters that surround the island’s 3,000+ miles of coastline are teeming with marine life, including numerous species of dolphins, seals, and whales and more than 300 species of fish. You’ll also find its shores teeming with birds, of which 70 species are known to breed in Iceland and more than 350 have been spotted there.

While we can’t possibly cover all of the Icelandic animals, here’s a look at some of the most interesting species you’re likely to see during International Expeditions’ nine-day Iceland Voyage.

DOMESTICATED ANIMALS OF ICELAND

Icelandic Horse

Arguably among the most popular Iceland animals, Icelandic horses are a common sight along the Ring Road that visitors use to travel around the country. Smaller, sturdier and arguably cuter than other breeds, these pony-sized horses descend from animals brought to Iceland by the Norsemen in the 9th and 10th centuries.

They are hardy animals built to withstand the rugged climate of winters in Iceland and are relatively disease-free. Icelandic law ensures no other horse breeds are allowed to be imported, and any exported animals may not return. Though they are very friendly to humans, it’s crucial that you not feed the horses anything, as it may be harmful to their health.

Revered in Norse mythology, Icelandic horses are beloved around the world today. They are still commonly used for leisure and sheepherding but are also popular for racing and shows, where they display two gaits unique to their breed.

Animals in Iceland

Icelandic Sheep

Another animal of Iceland that descends from a Nordic breed, Icelandic sheep were bred from Norwegian Spelsau brought over by the island’s original Viking settlers. As a result, these hardy herbivores are extremely adept at finding food, even during the harsh winter in Iceland.

The stocky, short-legged breed is a Northern European short-tailed sheep, with no wool on their faces or legs. Their dual-coated fleece is perfect for withstanding extremely cold climates and come in colors ranging from black and brown to white and grey.

You’ll see the Icelandic sheep in great numbers as you travel around the country, occasionally standing right in the middle of the road! But they’re much more skittish than the horses, so don’t try to approach, pet or feed them.

Animals in Icelanda

Icelandic Sheepdog

Wherever there are sheep, it is almost inevitable that there will be sheepdogs. And it’s no surprise that this beautiful breed, a member of the spitz family (along with akitas, chows and huskies), descends from those brought by the Vikings.

Measuring 17 to 18 inches tall and weighing 25-30 pounds, Icelandic sheepdogs are expert herders with a strong build, keen hearing, and a seemingly limitless supply of energy. They have an exceptional work ethic, often competing in dog agility, herding, and obedience competitions.

The breed, which closely resembles Scandinavian dogs bred in Denmark and Sweden around 8000 BC, was nearly wiped out by canine distemper in the late 19th century. As a result, the importation of dogs to Iceland was banned in 1901, and the Icelandic Dog Breeder Association was established in 1969 in an effort to preserve the beloved breed.

Animals in Iceland

ICELAND WILDLIFE

American Mink

The American mink, which is more closely related to the Siberian weasel than the European mink, is the animal most commonly farmed for its fur.

That is precisely how the species wound up becoming invasive in Iceland: Several of them escaped from local farms, made their way into the wild, and bred like crazy. Now they’re commonly seen around Iceland’s copious waterways, where they feed on rodents, fish crustaceans, and birds.

Unfortunately, the American mink’s rapid population growth has led to a decline in the European mink in areas where the two species overlap.

Animals in Iceland

Arctic Fox

The Arctic fox is the only native land animal in Iceland, but it’s fairly difficult to spot unless you head away from the cities and venture into the country’s more remote highlands.

Also known as the polar fox or snow fox, these relatively tiny animals (average 18 to 22 inches long, and weighing six to eight pounds) are common throughout the Arctic tundra. With fur covering their entire bodies, including the foot pads, they’re made for frigid climates and can withstand temperatures down to −94 °F.

The Arctic fox’s dense, multilayered fur provides the best insulation of any mammal on the planet. Their fur changes color with the seasons to provide maximum camouflage capabilities, going from brown in summer to white in winter. They’re also known to cache food for the lean times and can store body fat for extremely long periods of time.

Animals in Iceland

Reindeer

Reindeer are another Iceland animal that was introduced from Norway, but not until the latter part of the 18th century.  They were originally brought over for the purpose of farming (as is common throughout Scandinavia). But the locals didn’t take to traditional reindeer husbandry, so the animals were never domesticated.

Today these iconic Arctic animals all live in the wild. Although a herd in southeast Iceland, unfortunately, died out years ago, there are still thousands of them grazing in the country’s northeast region. They tend to stick to the higher elevations during the warm summer months, moving down into the coastal grasslands in search of food during the winter.

The impressive herd’s territory extends from Vopnafjördur in the north to the Glacier Lagoon in the south. The most popular places to see reindeer in Iceland during the summer months include Brúaröræfi, Vesturöræfi, and the desert expanses around Snæfell (which is the fourth tallest mountain in Iceland).

Animals in Iceland

MARINE ANIMALS IN ICELAND

Wildlife in Iceland may be relatively limited on land. But, thanks to the island’s sub-Arctic location in the North Atlantic, its waters are teeming with marine life. Here’s an overview of the many marine animals Iceland has to offer:

Dolphins

There are six species of marine dolphins that are seen at least somewhat sporadically in Iceland’s icy waters, as well as one porpoise and one whale that is not truly a whale.

Iceland’s dolphin species include the distinctively colored Atlantic white-sided dolphin; the white-beaked dolphin (which has a short, white snout); the short-beaked common dolphin (which has an hourglass pattern on each side); the striped dolphin (which has a blue, white, or pink belly); the common bottlenose dolphin; and Risso’s dolphin (which is closely related to pilot and false killer whales).

Speaking of killer whales, did you know that the orca is technically a member of the oceanic dolphin family, of which it is the largest member? These apex predators are fearsome hunters who are known to work in cooperation, preying on seals, small whales, and even other dolphin species.

The harbour porpoise, one of the world’s smallest marine mammals, is a fairly common sight on Iceland whale watching tours. They are typically found close to the coast and are known to occasionally go into river estuaries that are miles from the sea.

Animals in Iceland

Seals

There are six seal species living on the islands, ice packs and coasts of the Arctic and North Atlantic Oceans.

The rarest of these is the hooded seal, whose range extends from Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence east to Svalbard, Norway. They’re typically grey or white with black spots, but their pups boast a beautiful blue-grey coat for the first 14 months. They are named for the adult male’s ability to inflate a balloon-like sac with its nostrils to attract mates.

More commonly seen are the earless harp seal, whose scientific name translates to “Greenlandic seal”; the abundant ringed seal (a favorite prey for polar bears and orcas), named for their grey-rimmed dark spots; and the harbor seal (a.k.a. common seal), which is the world’s most widely distributed pinniped species.

Iceland visitors may also have the chance to see the gray seal, whose taxonomic name (Halichoerus grypus) means “hooked-nosed sea pig”; as well as the bearded seal, another of the polar bear’s favorite prey, whose copious whiskers look quite dashing when they’re dry.

Animals in Iceland

Whales

Going on a whale-watching cruise is arguably among the most popular ecotourism activities in Iceland, where a host of cetacean species abound offshore. So it’s ironic that the country remains one of the few in the western hemisphere with an active whaling industry because they refuse to acknowledge the international moratorium on commercial whaling.

You can probably imagine the reaction when the New York Times profiled Icelandic whaling magnate Kristjan Loftsson in 2018. The 75-year-old Loftsson, who is the last commercial hunter of fin whales in the world, suggested that avid marine conservationists who have a problem with his exploitative industry should “just turn around and look the other way.”

Iceland travelers have a chance see fin whales, the second largest animals on the planet, but they tend to prefer deeper waters far offshore. Despite the fact that an estimated 40,000 live in the North Atlantic, fin whales are listed as endangered by the IUCN. But despite international pressure, most Iceland locals have no issue with the hunt.

The waters off Iceland’s coast are also home to the largest animal known to have ever existed, the blue whale. Growing up to 98 feet long and 173 tons, these gentle giants were almost hunted to extinction in the 19th and early 20th century and remain endangered today. With two groups in the North Atlantic, a trip to Iceland offers a fair chance to see them.

Other commonly seen whales in Iceland include the humpback, the most active and acrobatic species, whose breaching and other surface behaviors make them major crowd-pleasers. The minke whale is the second smallest of all baleen whales, measuring just 23 to 26 feet long and weighing an average of four to six tons, with a white band on each flipper. And the sperm whale in the world’s largest toothed predator, made famous by the Herman Melville classic Moby Dick.

The best time for whale-watching in Iceland is the warmer months, from April/May through late September and early October. But as the effects of global warming grow, opportunities to see whales off the shores of the country’s southern coast are improving even in the late winter months.

Animals in Iceland

Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.