Holly Mutascio ’12 – Arctic Fox Conservation in Sweden

Interview conducted with Holly by Mara McPartland on October 3, 2011 about an internship that she did working on arctic fox conservation in Sweden during the summer of 2010, and her subsequent senior project.

M: How did you become interested in working in arctic fox conservation?

H: I have always been interested in the tundra, and in the animals that inhabit tundra environments.  I was very interested in foxes from having taken Evolution at Bennington, where I did a paper looking at the evolution of complex families in canids, which is when there more than two adults (usually three) in one family unit.  In my paper I looked at the potential fitness benefits of that phenotypic trait in fox families.   At the time, I had also been applying to programs in the US that would get me to the tundra, either in Alaska or the Rocky Mountains.  My professor Kerry suggested to simply email scientists who had written papers that I liked.   The literature surrounding the complex family question is pretty unclear, but I sent some emails and heard from a biologist names Anders Angerbjron, who is a professor at Stockholm University.   He has a project called the Arctic Fox Conservation Project that aims for the protection of the different species of arctic fox in Scandinavia, where it is endangered, and to understand why the populations are endangered.  He takes interns, so I applied and got the internship.

M: What was it like, where you were in Sweden?

H: Sweden is about the size of california, with a large number of biospheres, ranging from a more temperate Southern climate, all the way up to the arctic circle where there are glaciers and 24 hours of daylight during the summer.  I was in the Helags Mountains, which is in the middle part of the country,and has the southern most glacier in Sweden.  It is an alpine arctic tundra environment, which is classified by altitude, predominantly and also by latitude.  We were above the treeline, although there were dwarf birch and dwarf spruce that were only a foot to two feet tall.  A lot of sedges and grasses and lichens.  There were mountains in some places, and it was very hilly, with lots of water.   It was a very beautiful environment.

M: Why are arctic foxes an area of concern for conservationists?

H: In the early twentieth century the fur trade overharvested the foxes, and even though between the ’20s and ’40s restrictions were implemented on harvesting them, there was no substantial increase in population sizes.  One potential reason is because the foxes are dependent on rodent populations, and when they fluctuate so do the fox populations.  The rodent populations cycle naturally up and down, but in the ’50s the cycles dissapeared and nobody knows why.  Human fragmentation has certainly played a part in limiting their populations.  Red foxes have  also been encroaching on their territory, perhaps due to human fragmentation or climate change.   The project has also started to look into diseases, which might be having an impact.

M: What did your job involve?

H: I was collecting data.  Half of the time my task was to trap and tag foxes to make it easier to track them, and to take hair and skin from the tag for DNA samples. The other half of the time I was doing behavioral observations near the dens, recording what they were doing every 5 minutes.  Arctic foxes dont care if they know that humans are around, which makes it neat to observes them because you know what you are doing 
isn’t substantially impacting their behavior.  I really enjoyed it.  It was cool to handle and watch them.  They are very graceful.

M: So, do you plan on doing a senior project here at Bennington that is related to your internship?

H: I got permission from Anders to use the data that I collected on complex families.   So I am probably going to be looking at time budgeting in relation to whether it is a complex family or not.  I would like to look how whether or not being a complex family effects the amount of time being vigilant (time monitoring the surroundings).  In a situation where there is a lot of prey, a fox doesn’t have to spend a lot of time hunting, whereas in a low-prey year a lot of time has to be spent looking for prey.  I am interested in the interaction between vigilance and feeding time, and how family structure would affect this interaction.

M: Do you think that you will go back?

H:  I don’t know if I will go back there, but I am definitely interested in pursuing work on foxes when I graduate.


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