Animals in Iceland
Did you know that there is only one land mammal native to Iceland? Find out which one.
At the time of settlement there was only one land mammal native to Iceland. Now the country is home to a lot more. Here we take a bit of a closer look at all the country's mammals.
The original Icelandic mammal was the Arctic fox. It is assumed it got stranded on the island at the end of the Ice Age and then ended up evolving into a distinct subspecies, surviving on an omnivorous diet including berries, birds, eggs and carrion.
Next came the humans and they brought with them sheep, horses, and probably mice too.
The distinct Viking age Scandinavian horse and sheep breeds have survived unchanged in Iceland – and thanks to the law of the land, they are unlikely to change any time soon. That's because it is now strictly illegal to import farm animals to Iceland; and this even includes bringing show horses home again after big international competitions – it is simply not allowed. Luckily there is a huge market for Icelandic horses overseas.
It is not just the sheep and horses that are special Viking throwbacks in Iceland. The endangered Icelandic goat is enjoying something of a comeback – and the same can be said of the Icelandic chicken (although they are different, not only because they are not mammals, but also because there are lots of other breeds of chicken in Iceland today).
The Icelandic cow is also unique and its closest relatives today can be found in Sweden. If you’ve ever been to Iceland you will surely agree that the milk is exceptionally good – while the beef is good, but not world-shakingly so.
There are no cute and fluffy squirrels in Iceland. Which is a shame. But there are rats and semi-wild escaped mink. There are also rabbits these days too – whose ancestors were pets and who remain remarkably tame. You can even stop and pet some of them, even though most were born in the ‘wild’ and are now becoming somewhat of a pest.
Saving the most impressive for last, we can’t end this article without talking about reindeer, seals, whales and polar bears.
Polar bears are not native to Iceland and they have not lived in Iceland at all during historic times – and probably not since the Ice Age. One does drift ashore to the country every few years though and they usually either die, leave again, or survive for a while by eating sheep or people. That is why they have historically always been killed on sight once they enter the country. If you see a polar bear, head for cover and call the police.
Reindeer were introduced to Iceland from Scandinavia in the 18th Century and now roam freely in the east of the country. They are a majestic sight to behold, but can cause a danger to road users. So drive carefully!
Seals swim all around Iceland in large numbers and can often be seen sunbathing on rocks and beaches. The most common type is the harbor seal, but you might also see grey seals and harp seals if you’re lucky.
Finally, Iceland is surrounded by whales, porpoises and dolphins. They are mammals, but you wont find them on land, unless visiting the Whales of Iceland exhibition. You can always go to them. Whale watching tours are one of the most popular summer activities in the country, as you doubtless already know!
Gotta catch'em all!
We're sure you'd like to see as many Icelandic animals as possible during your vacation in Iceland and you're in luck because almost all of them can be seen in Reykjavik City. Head to the Reykjavik Park & Zoo in Laugardalur Valley, it's open all year round. In the zoo part of the park you can find Icelandic domestic animals including farm animals, reindeer, harbor seals and arctic foxes. If you're traveling with kids they will love it there! Get the Reykjavik City Card to get the best deal on tickets to the zoo and try the Hop on - Hop off sightseeing bus in Reykjavik, which has two stops near Laugardalur Valley. Before or after catching a whale watching tour you can go and see just how big those creatures are at the Wales of Iceland exhibition, where anatomically and proportionally accurate whale replicas fill the room and you can learn even more about the giants of the sea.