15 Arctic Animals That Use Camouflage (With Videos)

Arctic Animals That Use Camouflage
Fact Checked and Reviewed by: Mark Rhodes, Ph.D. - Wildlife Biologist
Dr. Mark Rhodes holds an MS in Fisheries and Wildlife along with a Ph.D. in Wildlife Ecology. He helps maintain our editorial standards of accuracy and quality. You can read more about Dr. Rhodes here.

When we think of animals blending with their surroundings the first species that usually come to mind are reptiles and amphibians.

While these animals have mastered the art of concealment, surrounded by hues of green and brown they would stand out like a sore thumb in the vast whiteness of the Arctic.

So, how do arctic animals do it, and more importantly what arctic animals use camouflage?

Some arctic animals like the polar bear remain white all year round to blend in with the white environment. Other arctic animals, like the arctic wolf, fox, hares, and ermine as well as the Peary caribou, and the ptarmigan change the color of their fur or feathers from white to brown or gray seasonally.

If you want to know more about the types of camouflage that arctic animals use, and which 15 arctic animals use it according to our list then keep on reading!

What Type of Camouflage Do Arctic Animals Use?

Some Arctic animals have a very straightforward type of camouflage and that’s as simple as having white fur or feathers all year round.

Being pure white against the snowy background of the Arctic is a true blessing because these animals can either hide from their predators to avoid being eaten or stalk the prey they are about to eat.

For some animals like the harp seal on our list, being white is not a permanent state. Instead, they are born with a white coat as a survival mechanism, and when they are older they shed their white fur, no longer in need of its concealment.

Then again there are other Arctic animals that have the ability to change the color of their fur or feathers depending on the season.

This is called seasonal polyphenism, which is reversible, and it’s a mechanism that allows arctic animals, but also various species across the globe, to change the color of their fur, feathers, or skin.

Winter usually lasts for 9 months in the Arctic, while summer is a short three-month affair. In certain parts, the ice will melt, which would leave the white animals exposed. With seasonal polyphenism, these Arctic animals will go from white during the winter season, to shades of gray and brown, thus blending with their surroundings once more.

15 Arctic Animals That Use Camouflage

Now that you know the type of camouflage the animals in the Arctic may use, it’s time to take a closer look at each species on our list and what camouflage they use in order to survive.

Gyrfalcon

The Gyrfalcon is the national animal of Iceland, so it’s only natural that this bird of prey would be white save for the black spotting.

That being said the Gyrfalcon comes in multiple colors, from light gray to dark brown. As you can imagine white Gyrfalcons are most commonly found in the coldest parts of the world, like Greenland.

While the white Gyrfalcon does a good job of blending with the white background of the various regions of the North Pole, it’s in no way a small bird. In fact, the Gyrfalcon “is thought to be the biggest “true” falcon in the world, with a wingspan of up to 135sm or 53 inches.

This bird of prey is also a ferocious predator, that doesn’t only go after ground-dwelling animals like Arctic hares, and rodents but also after birds like the Ptarmigan.

Rock Ptarmigan

I have a soft spot for birds and I must admit that the Rock Ptarmigan might just be my favorite bird of all time.  There’s something endearing about the rounded shape of the plump Ptarmigan, and I simply adore its colors, which change seasonally.

If you could take a walk along the white plains of tundra you would probably miss the elusive Ptarmigan because it turns completely white, aside from a few black spots and feathers on its tail.

During the summer, it can easily go unnoticed as the white plumage changes and slowly turns to gray and brown, with only the belly and wings remaining white. A perfect camouflage against the melting snows that reveals the soil, rocks, and growing vegetation.

Arctic Hare

Hares are never easy to spot, but as you can imagine a pure white hare surrounded by pristine white snow is basically invisible.

What’s fascinating about the Arctic hare that lives in the distant lands of the North American tundra, is its coat. Unlike some animals on this list, this hare changes the color of its coat.

During the winter it remains as white as the snowy plains that it lives on, and in the summer it molts and grows new fur that is usually brown or gray. This helps the Arctic hare remain hidden in plain sight even when most of the snow has melted revealing the dark soil underneath.

While the seasonal polyphenism is the main reason the Arctic hare is able to go unnoticed, if we’re being honest you are less likely to spot an arctic hare because of its speed, since it can “bound at speeds up to 40 miles an hour” as national geographic states!

Ermine/Stoat

The ermine or stoat as it’s also known as, is another small but ferocious animal on our list. This little critter also displays seasonal polyphenism to survive in the wilderness of the Arctic.

During the cold months of winter, they remain white save for the black tip of their tail, and their coat is much denser. In the summer months, their fur starts molting, it becomes shaggier and sparse but most importantly it turns brown with only their belly remaining white.

Unlike some animals on our list, ermines don’t just change their coat from white to brown to escape other predators, but they also use their camouflage to successfully hunt down their own prey.

Snowshoe Hare

The Arctic hare is not the only hare on our list and the snowshoe also deserves a spot on our list because these animals also know how to camouflage themselves from the keen eyes of the predators that live alongside them in North America and the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

During the winter they sport a white coat with only the tips of their adorable and considerably short ears remaining black.

During the summer the snowshoe hare turns a rusty brown and unlike the Arctic hare, its flanks remain white no matter what season it is.

Aside from its impressive camouflage, the snowshoe hare doesn’t only rely on its coloring but also on its acute hearing that helps them detect predators.

Even though threats like hunting and overlap with human territories have affected their numbers, they are still listed as a “least concern” species. Interestingly, though, snowshoe hare populations seem to exhibit a 10-11 year cycle, according to Dr. Mark Rhodes. This population cycle is affected by sun cycles and the lynx population, which is an animal that relies on the showshoe hare as a primary food source.

Arctic Lemming

The Arctic lemming is admittedly one of the smallest animals in the Northern Hemisphere, but despite their tiny size, they play a significant role in the Arctic’s ecosystem.

Lemmings are an important source of food for many predators, and according to the Government of Canada, “every few years the lemming population crashes, and when that happens, the numbers of Arctic foxes, weasels, snowy owls, jaegers, and more, also tumble.”

Despite the hardships this animal faces, the lemming is a hardy little animal, that no matter what tries to conceal itself from potential predators by using its camouflage capabilities.

During the summer lemmings might look like any little rodent that you can spot in the countryside because they are usually brown or gray with hues of reddish brown and dark stripes.

Only in the winter do lemmings look like true northern dwellers as they molt their fur and turn white and they also develop forked digging claws which help them dig more efficiently.

Arctic Fox

I always imagined that the majestic Arctic foxes stay white all year round, however, that is not the case, and apparently, Arctic foxes are masters of camouflage.

So, instead of staying white all the time, they molt their fluffy white fur and turn brown or gray which helps them go undetected among the summer tundra’s rocks and plants.

Changing their fur from one season to another doesn’t just offer protection from possible predators, but it also helps them hunt more effectively and survive during both winter and summer.

They specifically go after another camouflage expert on our list, the lemming, and when their numbers dwindle the Arctic fox becomes extremely vulnerable as well.

Arctic Wolf

While there are many animals that can shift the color of their fur or feathers depending on the season, the Arctic wolf is a completely different case.

The Arctic wolf is actually born with a brown or black coat that turns white by the end of its first year.

As you can imagine, having a coat the same color as the ice and snow has helped the Arctic wolf survive in the harsh environment of the High Arctic tundra.

Perhaps the reason why these specific wolves have permanent white coats has something to do with the fact that they live north of the northern treeline and they don’t travel toward the forest regions where a darker coat would prove more useful.

No matter what the reason might be, we are lucky to witness such a beautiful animal!

Peary Caribou

The smallest of all caribou, the Peary caribou, lives in the high Arctic islands as well as the Northwest Territories in Canada.

It’s not so easy to spot these animals against the white vastness because of the white coat that’s also thick enough to protect them from extreme colds.

Like so many animals on our list, their camouflage doesn’t end there, and during the warmer months of the summer, the Peary caribou’s coat also transforms and becomes shorter and darker, a king of slate-gray color.

What sets the Peary caribou apart from its cousins, is that both the females and males have antlers, and you can only tell them apart, by their physical size.

Polar Bear

I think everyone expected the polar bear to be on this list, and it was only natural that these bears would actually be on it, after all these magnificent animals are white as snow!

While polar bears don’t possess seasonal polyphenism, meaning their fur doesn’t change color seasonally, their all-year-round white fur serves them well enough as a camouflage against the ice and snow.

In fact according to World Wild Life, “their coat is so well camouflaged in Arctic environments that it can sometimes pass as a snow drift.”

What’s even more interesting is that their white fur doesn’t have any pigment, thanks to a mutation in two candidate genes. So, instead of actually being white, their coat is more translucent and it only appears white because of the light that reflects off of it.

Another interesting fact is that the skin underneath that fur is actually black!

Harp Seal

The harp seals don’t display reversible seasonal polyphenism, nor are they white, so you might be wondering what are they doing on our list.

Well, harp seals are born white, in fact, their fluffy white coats are probably their most recognized feature and that’s why the harp seal pups are called “whitecoats.” As the pups grow they shed their coat after about two to three weeks the harp seal pups turn from pure white to silver-gray.

Harp seals spend most of their time in the icy waters of the Northern Hemisphere, but when it’s time to give birth and raise their babies, these animals return to the land or they drift on sea ice.

So, being born white gives the harp seal pups a few advantages. First of all the white fur absorbs more sunlight and keeps them warm while they are still developing blubber. Plus being white against a white background means that harp seal pups are more likely to go unnoticed by predators like the polar bear, foxes, and wolves.

So, it’s a multifunctional camouflage!

Snowy Owl

The Snowy Owl is another majestic Arctic animal on this list that can become one with its surroundings thanks to its white plumage.

These birds don’t use seasonal polyphenism, instead, they use their white camouflage to stay undetected by some predators, but mostly prey.

What’s truly fascinating about their color is that males are whiter compared to females that sport dark markings. Most males are also born with similar markings, but some actually become pure white as they grow older while females never do.

Despite the black specks, you are unlikely to spot an owl in its natural environment, and you are more likely to mistake a perched one for a snow-covered rock!

Beluga Whale

Unlike most animals on this list, the beluga whale doesn’t have a coat or feathers, but it does have white skin that helps it camouflage itself in the polar ice caps.

Being one of the smallest whale species of whale, the beluga has certain Arctic predators that it needs to conceal itself from, predators like the polar bear, killer whales, and Arctic people.

The beluga whale is a social animal and you will mostly find them living in small groups, swimming in the cold Arctic Ocean, looking like scattered free-drifting pieces of ice.

Arctic Ground Squirrel

You mightn’t expect a squirrel to live in the Arctic, well one of the ways this little creature can survive the extreme cold is by hibernating.

In fact, the Arctic ground squirrel is the most extreme example of hibernation because according to Scientific American, their body’s temperature will usually drop to “–2.9 degrees Celsius, almost three degrees below the freezing point of freshwater and probably the lowest core body temperature ever recorded in a living mammal.”

It’s easy to imagine that Arctic ground squirrels don’t need to change their colors since they will hibernate for 7 to 8 months, but they do.

In the summer their coats will usually appear red and yellow colorations on their cheeks and sides, but during the fall, before they go into hibernation, their colorful coat will be replaced with silver fur.

Siberian Hamster

Last but not least, the Siberian hamster, or winter white dwarf hamster as it’s also called, is probably the most unexpected animal on our list, as well as being one of the smallest Arctic animals.

While this is a common enough household pet, the Siberian hamster also lives in the cold Siberian plains, digging tunnels and ground burrows where they sleep, reproduce, and hide from various predators.

The Siberian hamster, also changes its fur coat seasonally, going from a dark gray during the summer to a pure white during winter.

What’s interesting is that Siberian hamsters in captivity don’t usually undergo a seasonal coat change. But for the ones in the wild, this camouflage skill is essential to their survival!

Closing Thoughts

No matter what part of the world you look, you will find that the animals there have found ingenious ways of making sure that they will survive and the same goes for the extraordinary species inhabiting the Arctic.

Some of them remain white all year round and that’s enough of a camouflage to keep them hidden in the white wilderness, however, some of these animals need to stay safe or be able to hunt even when the ice and snow of the winter season melt revealing the gray and brown soil underneath.

Instead of standing out against the darker background these Arctic animals shed their white fur or feathers to reveal some darker gray or brown hues that can help them blend in once more with the ever-changing background of the summer.