IMAGINE STEPPING OUT INTO THE ARCTIC TUNDRA, where the only sounds are the snow crunching under your feet and the wind whipping past, biting into your cheeks.
Ahead is a massive expanse of land, covered in sheets of snow and ice. Then, you realize you’re not alone: running toward you at full speed is a colossal white creature. Its massive legs cover heaps of ground in seconds, faster than your own legs can take you. The polar bear could smell fresh meat long before you even saw it and the closer it gets, the more the panic sets in.
While this may mark the end of any human’s life, it’s a different story for the animals that go head-to-head in the Arctic.
When among the herd, the Atlantic walrus would hardly bat an eye at seeing the polar bear lunge. More than just a grey-brown lump on the ice, the sea mammal is fast and agile and knows full-well it could drench the bear’s fur in red.
Then imagine throwing a grizzly bear into the mix. Although the grizzly is a lightweight, compared to the other two, its vicious attitude could lead to the fight of a lifetime.
The wood bison could be a real contender, despite its less than carnivorous tastes. The furry beast is always ready to stand its ground, threatening to trample any animal that gets in its way.
The wolverine has a place on the list, too—proving size does not always equate to ferocity.
Let’s face it: to be a northern animal is to be tough. But if these fighters were to face off against each other, which one would come out on top?
THE CONTENDER: WOOD BISON
SURE, THESE FURRY VEGETARIANS are more interested in grass than hunting down other animals, but wood bison are one northern creature not to be messed with. Living across the southern Northwest Territories and the Yukon, bison are unpredictable. They can be aggressive and run three times as fast as humans.
“They are normally a deceivingly complacent animal,” says wildlife ecologist Todd Mahon. But what if a wolf or bear comes around trying to prey on some of the calves? “There’s been cases where bison have trampled wolves to death, for example. That rarely happens, but they’re fiercely defensive of their young.”
He adds that every year, there are cases of people being trampled on by bison because they get too close or get in between a cow and a calf. “The [bison] will charge them and head-butt them and trample them.”
During mating season in the spring, bulls will go head-to-head with each other and are particularly aggressive. Winfred Gatfi, managing director and owner of Arctic Tours Canada, has seen it for himself over the years, saying it’s “the sort of thing you only see on the Discovery Channel.”
Each time Gatfi has witnessed the scene, it’s been along Highway 3 outside Yellowknife. During several of his tours, Gatfi has witnessed incidents where two large bison start head-butting each other until one falls sideways, concussed into defeat.
“It was an intense five minutes,” says Gatfi, recalling one incident. “They’re powerful animals. They’re not small animals—you can tell that by how much dust goes up in the air as they fight.”
Wood bison are fiercely protective, says wildlife ecologist Todd Mahon.
THE BRAWLER: GRIZZLY BEAR
WHILE THE POLAR BEAR may be King of the Arctic, its forest-dwelling cousin, the grizzly, is no pushover.
“If anything gets in their way, the bears make sure it gets out of their way,” says Mahon.
Between its massive size, sharp teeth and long claws, the grizzly is one animal you don’t want to run into—though it’s always possible across the North. On its hind legs, a grizzly can rear up to 2.4 metres in height, and can weigh up to 770 kilograms. But if you think their size slows them down, you’d be wrong, as grizzlies can run at speeds of up to 50 kilometres an hour.
Luckily, grizzlies are mostly vegetarian, but of course they do catch fish as well as other animals on occasion.
“Often it’s just opportunistic,” says Mahon. “They’ll be out generally foraging and stumble across a cow and a calf moose, for example, and be able to chase down the calf when it’s young. But having said that, I have seen cases where they do go into real predatory mode. I’ve seen them stalking adult caribou and chasing a herd of Dall’s sheep for several hundred metres across alpine tundra.”
As a top predator, Mahon says the animal’s biggest weakness is people. Owner of Arctic Range Adventure, Felix Geithner, can attest to that.
While most of Geithner’s encounters with bears have been through a car window while on tour, he hasn’t always been so lucky. Geithner recalls the time he had taken a group of travellers on a week-long adventure, when a bear walked directly into their campsite and made a beeline for the packed-up food.
Clearly, this animal was used to seeing people in the popular campsite, says Geithner, so he threw a rock in the bear’s direction to scare it off.
“In that moment, what went through my mind is, we’re halfway down along the Yukon River in a spot inaccessible by road,” he says. “We still had another four days to Dawson City and in that moment, you think you can’t go on and leave your stuff behind.”
Thankfully, the group got away unscathed.
THE UNDERDOG: CHICKADEE
AT FIRST LOOK, the chickadee is as non-threatening as its name suggests. It’s the type of bird you may see perched on the fingertip of Snow White and it certainly won’t win a fight against a grizzly bear. But if you were to shrink the grizzly down to the same size, the outcome may just be a little different.
One biologist makes a good case for the chickadee, calling them “the little bird with the big attitude.”
Lisa Mahon is a land bird biologist (and partner to Todd Mahon), and she’s putting the chickadee at the top of her list for the toughest northern birds.
The three chickadees she often encounters in the North, which includes the Black-capped, Mountain, and Boreal chickadee, reside in the Yukon and NWT, while the Boreal Chickadee can also be found in some areas of Nunavut.
The biologist explains that these particular birds don’t migrate to escape the cold and instead stay in the North year-round.
“So, they’re outside for a very long and dark period of time,” she says. “They are so wily in the way they adapt to a wide range of temperatures and conditions. They are also really good at finding cavities in nesting season that they can renovate.”
That means the birds have to be resourceful by seeking out nesting areas once claimed by other animals, whether that be woodpeckers or squirrels. The chickadee also finds fur from other animals—like hares and wolves—to line its new home.
But what makes these birds so tough is the fact that they’re fearless. Mahon recalls a time where she was studying chickadee habitats and nesting ecology in northern British Columbia. While she was working, a large Northern Goshawk flew up and landed on the top of the chickadee nest tree.
“Suddenly the male chickadee—who had likely been nearby watching and guarding the nest tree—flew up to the goshawk and starting bombarding him by flying around his head and calling rapidly and excitedly,” she adds through email. “The goshawk stayed perched only for a few seconds before flying away. It was like a tiny fly annoying/harassing a much larger animal!”
So, while the chickadee doesn’t stand a chance against a bear, or any other animal on this list, in a fair fight, it has certainly earned its title as one of the North’s toughest creatures.
Don’t overlook the chickadee when it comes to tough northern animals, says biologist Lisa Mahon. They’re “the little bird with the big attitude.”
THE HEAVYWEIGHT: ATLANTIC WALRUS
THIS MASSIVE, BLUBBERY ANIMAL may not look like much as it lounges with hundreds of others on the ice, but even the mighty polar bear is in for a challenging fight against the Atlantic walrus. In fact, on the rare occasion a polar bear does try and go after a walrus, it knows the best option is to seek out the weakest link in the herd. It’s also a losing battle to try and fight a walrus in the water, as that’s where the water mammal is the most powerful and agile. The only way a polar bear can get to a walrus is by chasing the herd in and out of the water, until the weakest of the group tires out and becomes easy prey. That’s when the Arctic bear strikes.
Walruses spend much of their time lazing on the ice and usually remain untroubled by other animals, but if one is cornered or must defend its pups, the walrus is ready to inflict serious damage to its attacker. The walrus’s strength is partially due to its size, as they are much larger than even a polar bear—weighing up to 2,000 kilograms, which is more than most SUVs. Despite its size, it’s surprisingly fast, as it can, on all four flippers, run as fast as a human.
Plus, the walrus has metre-long tusks—actually teeth—to defend itself. In an equal fight between polar bear and walrus, the bear will often come out with bloody tusk wounds—if it comes out at all.
THE CROWD FAVOURITE: POLAR BEAR
IF YOU’VE EVER BEEN to Yellowknife’s Explorer Hotel, you’ve probably seen the massive stuffed polar bear looming over you in the lobby. It appears lurking in the background of nearly every guest’s selfies. Lucky for them, it’s expired. If that bear were real, there’d be plenty of carnage at the scene.
Still, even looking at the stuffed animal’s massive size is enough to carry the message Northerners know very well: polar bears are damn scary. They’re called the King of the Arctic and are at the top of the Arctic food chain for a reason.
“They don’t lay awake at night, wondering if something is going to try and eat them, that’s for sure,” says biologist Mike Setterington.
These animals are known to be the biggest carnivores in North America and can smell meat from miles away. They average about 450 kilograms and have massive paws that are nearly 30 centimetres wide, with razor claws that are five centimetres long.
Despite its incredible size, it can outrun humans and can easily crush its prey’s head with its jaws.
However, according to Setterington, “the toughest thing about them is their ability to find food.”
Setterington has worked with polar bears many times over the years in Nunavut, where he has seen some get quite skinny when it’s not seal-hunting season. The bear then has to find food wherever it can. Setterington adds he would often see them feeding on whale carcasses near Arviat during the month of October.
“We start to see them more and more inland.”
But when a polar bear does go in for the kill, it is exceptionally patient and ready at a moment’s notice.
Mostly hunting ringed seals, the polar bear will sit and wait for hours for a seal to emerge. Then, when the seal raises its head from the ice, the bear will freeze in place before pouncing from as far as six metres away. Polar bears often wait for prey on ice floes and can swim for several days, as far as 320 kilometres from land.
“Certainly, anything swimming in that cold water is going to be a tough animal,” says Setterington.
Polar bears are called the King of the Arctic, and they’re at the top of the Arctic food chain for a reason.
THE CHAMP: WOLVERINE
WOLVERINES ARE HARDLY LARGER than a medium size dog and from a distance, they look sweet and harmless, but don’t let their little faces fool you.
“They are ounce-for-ounce the toughest and most vicious critter we have in North America,” says Todd Mahon.
Wolverines are an alluring little beast, but if you were blissfully ignorant of what they actually look like (and their legendary fierceness), then you’re not alone. When Hugh Jackman landed his famous role as the Canadian superhero, the Australian actor had no idea that wolverines were anything other than a comic book concoction. Before starting his role as the Marvel character, he spent weeks studying wolves.
But anyway—back to the animal. Wolverines are very real and super ferocious.
These animals will hiss and bear their teeth as a warning, and their bark is just as bad as their bite. They’ll go after just about any animal, regardless of its size.
“There are reports about wolverines fighting grizzly bears over prey carcasses and killing prey as large as moose,” adds Mahon.
Other stories tell of caribou running through the forest while a crazed-looking wolverine rides on its back, claws dug in and blood flowing.
But not only are wolverines tough because of their fearlessness towards other animals. They also seem completely unafraid of the harsh climate they live in.
Wolverines can be found across all three territories and will travel great distances—from mountainous terrain to boreal forest.
Mahon has been amazed at how far these creatures are willing to go in circumstances that surely would have bested other animals.
“When we were doing aerial surveys, we’ll see a set of tracks where nothing is around to eat but ice and rock. Yet, a wolverine has decided to climb up one side of a mountain and down the other.”
Even if a wolverine did find itself between a rock and a hard place, Mahon is confident it would find its way out. He remembers working with wolverines in the past, where researchers set up live traps built out of 20 centimetre diameter logs.
“If we didn’t get out to these super heavily built live traps within a couple hours, the wolverines would be able to tear and chew themselves out,” he explains.
While wolverines do have sharp teeth and claws as well as strong muscles, what makes them more tough than other animals remains a bit of a mystery. It’s an attitude. They just seem ready for a fight.
“There’s something about the toughness of the animal that goes above scientific explanation,” says Mahon.
That level of mystery, combined with a ferocity that has even grizzlies running in the other direction, is what makes wolverines our champion.
While their size may be deceptive, this creature is one you don’t want to cross paths with. So, step aside polar bear. The wolverine is ounce-for-ounce the toughest animal in the North.
Other northern animals you don’t want to mess with:
The big, bad wolf will prey on creatures as large as a moose. Hunting in packs, wolves find the weakest animal in the herd, circle it and kill it together.
Hurtling hundreds of metres through the air, at close to 320 kilometres per hour, these birds capture prey with their sharp talons and perfect aim.
Like most cats, cougars are incredible hunters, with long canine teeth that can clamp down on large prey. It’s also a silent hunter, meaning an animal won’t know when the cougar is about to sneak up on it.
The muskox is certainly a heavyweight champion, weighing 315 kilograms, while standing about chest-high on a human. Also, the muskox has 10-centimetre-thick horns and wooly coats, which allow them to withstand minus 40 degree weather.
Biologist Mike Setterington marks the raven at the top of his list for toughest birds, because they can endure just about anything. “They seem comfortable playing and flying loops in the air at minus 40 degree Celsius,” he says.
Wooly Bear Caterpillar
Think these other animals are tough? The Wooly Bear Caterpillar can survive in temperatures down to minus 60, where its heart practically stops. It also lives in the vulnerable caterpillar stage for up to 14 years, before laying eggs and dying, just 24 hours after turning into a moth.