What kind of wildlife occupies a remote island in the North Atlantic Ocean, notorious for extreme weather conditions and geothermal activity? In our humble opinion, these seemingly adverse conditions are what make Iceland’s animals simply the best.
When the early Viking settlers arrived in Iceland in the 9th century, they brought with them livestock. Aside from some very interesting migrating birds, a few insects (and we do mean only a few) and the only native mammal to this island, the wildlife of Iceland is mostly limited to this cargo and the occasional stowaways on subsequent ships. So, what might you expect to come across on a hike in the Icelandic wilderness? Are there bears in Iceland? Are there any scary suspects you need to be aware of? Read on and be the biggest fauna nerd in your group of travelers.
Are there bears in Iceland?
Technically, there are no bears in Iceland. There are, however, the occasional sightings of polar bears. As if part of some Disney fairytale, these fluffy white teddy bears travel on little breakaway icebergs from Greenland and show up on Icelandic shores, usually quite weary and terribly hungry. These sightings are very rare but if you come across a polar bear, call the authorities and keep your distance!
The wild mammals of Iceland
Most of the mammals that live in Iceland hail from the original livestock brought by the early settlers. The sheep, cattle, chickens, pigs and horses are standard farm animals not found in the wild, but a few escape artists have thrived in the harsh wilderness of Iceland. These include mink, rodents and the magical reindeer. The reindeer roam wild, mostly in the eastern highland of Iceland and can be seen in huge flocks when they come down from the mountains in winter. The only native mammal in the entire island is the arctic fox, the most adorable little dude that mostly occupies the remote corners of the Westfjords. Hikers in these parts frequently encounter this furry fellow and marvel at how friendly they seem, mostly because they have no natural predators, are inherently curious and have little interactions with humans. Other notable wild cuties include the rabbits in Öskjuhlíð park in Reykjavik, descendants of evicted pets that seem to lead an adorable existence in the middle of the capital.
And the world’s most adorable bird award goes to…
Few hobbies attract more passionate nerds than bird watching and Iceland is a real mecca for bird enthusiasts. While Icelanders will look out for a sighting of owls, hawks, eagles and the amazing arctic tern, one bird undeniably rules the charts when it comes to popularity in Iceland, so much so that locals nickname tourist shops downtown after it. This is of course the adorable puffin. This rainbow-beaked cutie dominates the windows of giftshops in every town as a sort of arctic emblem. But they’re not just cute to look at. This hardy little bird is quite the character and comes with some eccentric traits. Be a puffin professional and read up on some adorable facts about the puffin here.
The marine life of Iceland
The most famous occupants of Icelandic waters are without a doubt the many whale species. For a proper introduction to our biggest mammals, check out our Whales around Iceland blog. While they can certainly be spotted from the shore, we highly recommend a proper whale watching tour because there’s simply nothing like an encounter with these gentle giants. Whale watching tours often spot dolphins as well and some sail by puffin colonies which is a special treat in summer. If a boat ride doesn’t fit your schedule, we highly recommend the Whales of Iceland exhibition which has life-sized replicas of all the whale species that can be found in Icelandic waters.
A note on Iceland’s domesticated animals
While this blog is about Icelandic wildlife, you should know that the remoteness of this island has produced some fascinating species of domesticated animals that despite being farm animals, roam free for most of the year. Icelandic sheep are more wild than domesticated as evident when they’re herded with great difficulty from the highlands down to the farms in fall. A subspecies of the Icelandic sheep is the curious leader sheep, known for - wait for it - their leadership abilities. These are remarkable individuals in a herd that lead their flock through treacherous weather, have what seems to be a 6th sense when it comes to weather predictions and will make calculated and smart decisions in difficult situations, making them a prized possession among Icelandic farmers for centuries. They differ slightly in appearance as well, usually being taller and leaner, more colorful and having a slightly keener set of eyes.
Then there’s the Icelandic Sheepdog, a hardy, smart and loving family dog. It is so adorable and beloved that its owners will ignore the incredible shedding this little animal is capable of all year round. Read more about the overachieving charmer that is the Icelandic Sheepdog here.
But the most famous of the Icelandic farm animals is without a doubt the Icelandic horse. It’s such a big deal that we wrote a special blog about it. It has a special status being a highly protected species meaning no other horse breed is allowed in the island. It also means that you can’t bring a horse back if you export it which is the most heartbreaking fact for the national equestrian team that regularly competes in the Icelandic Horse World Championships abroad and is forced to leave their champion horses behind. But the Icelandic horse is gaining such popularity all over the world that rehoming it abroad is no problem at all.
Are there any insects in Iceland?
And in case you were wondering, there are insects in Iceland. They are however quite tiny, not scary, pretty much harmless and no real nuisance to humans or other animals. The occasional tick is found a few years apart, an event that usually makes the news, wasps and blackflies can bite but are easily avoided and slugs can pester vegetables gardens, but that’s about it. A common misunderstanding is to mistake the abnormally large crane fly (daddy longlegs) with a mosquito, but these are gentle and rather disorientated giants that are mainly a nuisance because they tend to fly blindly into unsuspected humans and die in their windowsills moments later.
Enjoy a mostly insect-free vacation in Iceland and witness the cutest and hardiest wildlife around.