Iceland Road Guide

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Iceland Road Guide

Your key to Iceland in one handy volume. Iceland's entire road system, including the highlands and all mountain roads, plus its geography, culture and history. Easy to use for travel in either direction.

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Wild mammals are seldom seen in Iceland but are common in the oceans off the country. The arctic fox is the only mammal that has lived in the country since before human settlement but other terrestrial mammal species have been brought to the country by people, sometimes unwittingly. Field mice are believed to have arrived with the first settlers and rats were likely stowaways in the settlers' ships. Polar bears occasionally come to Iceland during polar ice years but they have never settled.

A few species of mammal have been imported to Iceland, mainly to increase the diversity in husbandry. Reindeer were imported to the country in the eighteenth century and currently there are several thousand in the east of Iceland. The mink was imported to the country to start a fur industry in the first half of the twentieth century. Some of the animals escaped custody and lay the foundation for a wild mink population which has succeeded in permanently establishing itself in the country. The mink causes much disorder in bird colonies and is very unpopular among farmers.

Two seal species, the harbour seal and the grey seal, live along the Icelandic coast. Icelanders have exploited these animals for centuries. Seals from seas farther north, including the hooded seal, the harp seal, the bearded seal and walruses, sometimes stray to Icelandic shores.

The ocean around Iceland has long been known for its diversity of whales. Whalers visited northern seas for centuries to hunt and, due to over hunting, some of the species, such as the grey whale and the right whale, have completely disappeared from Icelandic waters. In spite of this, there are several species that are easier to find near Iceland than in most other places in the world. In the summer, off the Eastern coast of Iceland, it is possible to come into contact with blue whales, the largest animals on earth. The most common whales, such as minke whales, white-beaked dolphins and harbour porpoises, can often be seen just off the coast, sometimes almost on the shore.

Mammals Fig.: Long-tailed Field Mouse
(Apodemus silvaticus)

Source: Iceland Road Atlas (2007)
The long-tailed field mouse lives throughout most of Europe and North Africa. They arrived in Iceland after the settlers came here, probably coming with them as stowaways. After their arrival, they dispersed all over the country. They have become residents of some islands along the Icelandic coast, but not all. They did not become residents of Öræfin until the middle of the twentieth century. This is not surprising as there are many wide glacial rivers in this region that are hard to cross.
Mammals Fig.: Arctic Fox
(Alopex lagopus)

Source: Iceland Road Atlas (2007)
When human settlers arrived in the ninth century, the arctic fox was the only wild mammal living in Iceland. This fox species is found all around the North Pole and is very well adapted to the extreme cold of the North. The relationship between humans and fox has been rigid here from the beginning and the fox has been in danger for a long time. In the oldest Icelandic laws, the extermination of the fox is discussed as the fox can be a very unpopular pest in bird colonies and egg gathering sites.
Mammals Fig.: Harbour Seal
(Phoca vitulina)

Source: Iceland Road Atlas (2007)
Harbour seals are widely found in the north Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It is the most common seal in the seas around Iceland. As the name implies, these seals are typical coastal species and are mostly found in fjords where they often rest on islets and sea rocks for long periods of time.
Mammals Fig.: Harbour Porpoise
(Phocoena phocoena)

Source: Iceland Road Atlas (2007)
Harbour porpoises (1.5 m or longer in length) are small toothed whales that belong to the dolphin family. They arrive at Iceland's coast in the spring looking for food. Harbour porpoises stay in shallow waters and may often be seen in bays and inlets, even almost on the shore. In earlier times, harbour porpoises were hunted; the whalers either used harpoons or guns. Harbour porpoises that have been caught accidentally in fishing nets have been used for their meat.
Mammals Fig.: Minke Whale
(Balaenoptera acutorostrata)

Source: Iceland Road Atlas (2007)
Minke whales (7-10 m in length) are small baleen whales that belong to the rorqual family. They are found in all the oceans of the world and are quite common in the sea around Iceland. They can be very curious creatures and sometimes swim up to ships and boats. This fact has been exploited by agents who offer whalewatching tours. Minke whale hunting has been carried out all over the world in great magnitude.
Mammals Fig.: White-beaked Dolphin
(Lagenorhynchus albirostris)

Source: Iceland Road Atlas (2007)
The white-beaked dolphin (2.5-3 m in length) is found in the north Atlantic Ocean. It is believed to be the most common dolphin around Iceland but it is rarely seen very close to land. White-beaked dolphins that have been caught accidentally in fishing nets have been taken and their meat used but hunting specifically for this species has never been undertaken.
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