Updated: Aug 10
Iceland is an incredible country but it can sometimes be a challenging place to call home. And that’s not just for humans. The wildlife and other animals in Iceland have to be hardy creatures in order to survive and thrive here. But nature always finds a way and over the centuries it has done just that. Before human settlement in the 9th Century, there was only one type of land mammal in Iceland. People often think there are polar bears in Iceland but this in not so. The wily Arctic Fox pretty much had the island to themselves for many centuries.
When humans arrived though they needed other animal inhabitants for their survival. Sheep and horses were introduced along with other domestic animals. Today all sorts of animals roam the land. Aside from creatures of the land, there has of course always been birdlife on Iceland. And the sheltered bays of this North Atlantic island are visited by all sorts of ocean wildlife. In this article, we’ll take you through the whole range of animals and wildlife that you might encounter on a trip to Iceland.
What animals are native to Iceland?
As mentioned the beautiful Arctic Fox has been around the longest by far. In fact, it was during the last Ice Age when they wandered over the ice to Iceland. When the ice receded some were left on the island. Surviving on foraged berries and insects the foxes are stealthy and quite shy of human contact. It is quite rare to see one in the wild. Not least because their fluffy white coats offer the perfect camouflage in the snow. They are generally found in the far north of the country in the remote Hornstrandir Reserve.
What sea creatures visit Iceland?
When talking about the wildlife in Iceland it is the creatures of the ocean that are perhaps the most exciting. There are over twenty species of whale regularly spotted in the waters around the island. Many species of fish swim in these waters and that makes for a fantastic feeding ground for seals and dolphins.
One favorite activity for visitors driving the Diamond Circle in North Iceland is a whale-watching excursion. The village of Húsavík lies about an hour drive off of the Ring Road in north east Iceland. If the notorious Icelandic weather permits then boats head into the sheltered bays around the coast on a regular basis. This is really a summer activity though so the boats won’t run in the depths of winter.
Once out on the water, you could spot any number of whales. You will likely see Minke Whales and Humpbacks as well as various dolphins such as the White Beaked dolphin. If you are really lucky you could see the giant of the ocean. The huge Blue Whale that can reach well over twenty meters in length.
Can I spot sea creatures from the shore?
Back on dry land, it is actually possible to see some sea life from the shore. If the boats aren’t running or you just don’t want to take a boat trip this is a good option. On the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in west Iceland, it is sometimes possible to see orca or killer whales from the shore. They come very close to the mouths of the inland waterways to feed on shoals of herring. Also around the beaches of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and in the Westfjords you can see the grey seal.
What about the birdlife of Iceland?
In the springtime and summer months, Iceland welcomes all sorts of birdlife to its shores. The most famous of which is the puffin. These feathery characters nest on the steep sea cliffs around the island and on surrounding smaller islands and sea stacks. If you take a whale watching tour then there will often be a puffin-spotting part of the tour included. It is easiest to see their cliff-clinging nests from the ocean. You can also see them from the land on the Látrabjarg cliffs in Iceland’s Westfjords.
Other migratory species of bird pass through the island including sandpipers and guillemots. Bird watching enthusiasts driving the Ring Road in summer will enjoy a spot of bird watching at Lake Mývatn. Here you can see whooper swans, geese, ducks, falcon and more.
What is Iceland National Animal?
Despite evidence to the contrary, the puffin is not the national symbol of Iceland. Although they have overrun its gift shops! The national animal is, in fact, the Gyrfalcon. It is a large and handsome species of falcon that can often be seen around Lake Mývatn.
What about the domestic animals of Iceland?
By far the most prevalent animal in Iceland is the sheep. Icelandic sheep roam free across the open landscapes all over the island. So if you are driving in Iceland you will come across them at every turn. In fact, you need to be careful to avoid any that might have strayed onto the road. The sheep have been integral to the survival of humans in Iceland. Their wool has kept people warm and lamb is a staple diet. With sheep, of course, come sheepdogs. Icelandic sheepdogs are fluffy and energetic creatures first brought over by the early settlers.
Another animal that you are likely to spot often is the Icelandic horse. These horses are a little different from other horses. Slightly smaller and sturdier they are sociable and friendly creatures. They are descended from the carefully chosen horses brought over by Iceland’s early settlers. There is a strict law in place now that no other horses can be introduced to the island. And if an Icelandic horse leaves they cannot come back again. This is to protect against any outside disease being brought to this isolated island. If you are visiting Iceland then we highly recommend meeting these horses. You can book on to horse riding day tours and spend some time getting to know them and the landscape.
Other animals on Iceland include cows, chickens, and rabbits along with mice and other rodents that stowed away on boats. Finally, there are some breeds of animals that were introduced to the island intentionally but then left to run wild. These were reindeer in the 18th Century and then Minke in the early 20th Century. The Minke was brought over to breed in fur farms. But the practice never really took on and the animals escaped into the wild.
Are there dangerous animals in Iceland?
No, all of Iceland’s animals are pretty harmless and friendly. If you were to encounter an adult fox then you should be careful. But they are shy creatures so if you see one it is likely to be from quite a distance. The majority of our furry or feathered friends on the island are pretty nonplussed by their human neighbors.