In this thesis, I investigate the relationship between arctic foxes Alopex lagopus and red foxes Vulpes vulpes in Swedish mountain tundra habitat (fjällen). The arctic fox population was severely reduced by hunting in the early 20th century. It has not recovered despite protection since 1928 and it is endangered, while the red fox population increased in 1930-1960.
I found a high food niche overlap between arctic and red foxes and they responded similarly to changes in the prey base, indicating similar prey preferences. Hence, arctic and red foxes should compete for the same territories; more precisely the ones in low altitude areas close to the tree-line where prey abundance is relatively high. In the 19th century, arctic foxes bred in all tundra habitats. An analysis of present den use showed that arctic foxes have retreated to higher altitudes as they rarely used the lower parts of their former range. Instead, red foxes did. Arctic foxes were highly dependent on the availability of Norwegian lemmings Lemmus lemmus for reproduction, while red foxes at lower altitudes had better access to alternative prey.
Interference competition imply that there are behavioural interactions between competing species, e.g. fighting or predation, but interactions can also be more subtle and imply that inferior species avoid encounters with stronger competitors by changing their habitat use. Red foxes are larger than arctic foxes. Hence, they have an advantage in direct fights and arctic foxes may either be driven away from their dens when red foxes establish in the vicinity, or they avoid habitats where they risk encounters with red foxes. I found that arctic foxes almost exclusively used dens situated farther than 8 km from inhabited red fox dens. In two out of three cases when they bred closer to red foxes, there was red fox predation on arctic fox cubs. Further, simulations of arctic fox avoidance of areas surrounding inhabited red fox dens in a spatially explicit population model, indicated that relatively small numbers of red foxes might have a large impact on arctic fox population size and distribution.
Thus, the results of this thesis indicate that interference competition with red foxes has hampered arctic fox recovery after the initial population decline, by causing a substantial reduction in arctic fox habitat. Further, red foxes have taken over the most productive areas and remaining arctic fox habitats is of such low quality that it is uncertain whether it can maintain even a small arctic fox population.
2003-05-16, Nordenskiöldsalen, Geovetenskapens hus, Frescati, 13:00 (English)