Known as the ‘land of fire and ice’, Iceland has been enticing nature lovers for some time. This sparsely populated volcanic island has no shortage of natural phenomena to marvel at, from jaw-dropping glaciers to geothermal springs and vast lava fields.
And as if that were not enough, it is also one of the top destinations in Europe for watching the dark skies illuminate with the swirling aurora borealis (more commonly referred to as the northern lights). But the dramatic and enchanting landscapes are not top priority on this list, it’s the wildlife we’re delving into.
Luckily, Iceland is not known for having any of the world’s most dangerous creatures, and, in fact, the unruly terrain and weather is more likely to get you here. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t one or two (or seven) creatures you should be aware of on your next arctic adventure.
1. Arctic Fox
Being the only native mammal in Iceland, The Arctic fox may look incredibly cute and cuddly, but they are not without danger. They are one of the main carriers of Arctic rabies virus, meaning one bite from one of these foxes could potentially be fatal.
This fox can be found all over Iceland, but has a particular fondness for the Westfjords area, where the largest bird cliffs are, meaning an all you can eat buffet for them at mealtimes.
Although not generally considered aggressive, you should always be cautious when encountering any in the wild because, like most animals, if you get on the wrong side of one, it’s no more Mr. nice guy.
2. Arctic Tern
Known to have the longest migration in the animal kingdom, the Arctic tern does over a 40,000-mile roundtrip between the Arctic circle and Antarctic circle every year. After spending time in their Arctic breeding grounds, they then follow the sun to the Antarctic, getting to enjoy summer all year round – alright for some.
Nesting all around the coast of Iceland, they are known to be more of a nuisance than a danger. However, this bird is extremely protective of its young and with incredibly sharp beaks, they are not afraid to use them in self-defence. When attacking, they tend to strike the head, so, unless you are looking to recreate a scene from Hitchcock’s terrifying classic, The Birds, you would do best to avoid their nests.
However, as much as they might pose a threat to you, these birds have much more to fear in us. They are regularly wandering onto the roads in Iceland and, in fact, one road on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula even had to be repainted bright colors in an effort to stop so many from being hit by traffic.
The American mink was first imported to Iceland back in the 1930s for fur farming, as their coats were some of the most valued around. However, some managed to escape their cages and the mink population in the wild began rising.
Nowadays, they can be found hanging around riverbanks, marshes, and lakes, and although attacks are rare, they have been known to happen. So, don’t let that adorable, butter wouldn’t melt face fool you, as these little guys can actually be extremely vicious, especially if cornered or feel their territory is being encroached upon.
Other than that, it’s mainly just animals such as frogs, fish and mice that need to fear these ferret-like creatures.
Being a relatively new addition to the fauna of Iceland, there are now around 7,000 reindeer in Iceland. Brought over by humans in the 18th century, they take the title of Iceland’s largest land mammal and are found in the east of the country.
Spending their time in herds, close to rivers, mounded hills, and dams, you may think of these animals as being fairly friendly and docile (after all, they are Santa’s loveable helpers), however, they can be easily spooked and, in turn, could be rather dangerous.
Although, in general, reindeer tend to avoid humans, and will often run from any possible interaction, but it is recommended to be very wary during mating season (typically between late September and November). During this time, males are known to be incredibly volatile, due to the increase in testosterone levels, so best to keep a safe distance around this period. After all, even just one knock from those razor-sharp antlers could do a whole lot of damage.
For any seal enthusiast, Iceland is the place to be. With many seal colonies spread throughout the country, you are never far from a possible sighting. From seeing them lounging along the shorelines, to curiously peaking their heads out of the waters, these loveable semiaquatic mammals are always a joy to gaze at in the wild.
However, are they always as sweet-natured as they look? The answer, unfortunately, is no. In some instances, such as disturbing them as they rest, they can become overly aggressive. And just one bite could transmit an infection called ‘seal finger’, which can result in joint inflammation and swelling of the bone marrow.
With sharp claws and interlocking teeth, these guys are not to be messed with and you should always back away at the sight of any seal that looks in distress or agitated…however much you may want to just give it a hug.
Some of the reasons for seals to become aggressive are if they feel cornered or threatened, if defending their pups, or if you interrupt feeding time.
So again, like all the world’s wildlife, just using caution is the sure-fire way to keep on their good side.
6. Polar Bear
Although not native to Iceland, polar bears have been known to drift on icebergs from their nearby homes in Greenland. This often happens when the weather becomes warmer and, therefore, ice breaks away, allowing the perfect transport method for country hopping. You will mostly find them in the Westfjords area, as this is the closest point to Greenland. However, if they fancy going for a longer swim, a favorite hangout for them is the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, due to the abundance of seals for a tasty meal.
Although they rarely go on land and prefer to chill out on the icebergs, tourists are warned to keep a safe distance from this lagoon. While generally considered to be the largest bear in the world, polar bears are not inherently vicious, however, with the strength and speed they possess, one wrong move could end in tragedy. So, if you do happen to be in the area when a polar bear is taking a little vacation, you might want to be aware of a few bear safety tips:
Always carry a bear spray if a bear sighting is possible.
Make yourself big and act like a threat if a polar bear looks ready to attack.
Last but not least, we have the humble wasp. Not present in Iceland before the 70s, due to inhospitable weather conditions, they can now be found buzzing all over the country – thanks to global warming. Although not quite the terrifying prospect of encountering a grizzly bear on holiday, wasps are still a fairly annoying fixture of Icelandic summers.
For the most part, a sting from a wasp is little more than just a bit of pain and discomfort, however, there are cases of wasp stings that can be much more dangerous than that. If there is an allergic reaction, then a whole host of symptoms could occur, ranging from redness and swelling to nausea and vomiting. And in rare cases, anaphylaxis can occur, which is a severe allergic reaction causing the person to have difficulty breathing, and could ultimately be fatal.
However, many people can go a lifetime without ever being stung by a wasp, so just following these simple little tricks should keep you free from that nasty sting:
Move away slowly and don’t try to swat at them, as this only makes them angry.
Wear neutral colors, as bright colors attract them.
Avoid wearing strong scents.
Cover food and beverages, especially those of the sugary kind.
What is the most dangerous animal in Iceland?
The most dangerous animal you could possibly encounter in Iceland would most likely be the polar bear. Although, as mentioned above, only a few rogue ones may reach the Icelandic shores. However, if an encounter with one of these guys goes wrong, let’s just say there’s not much chance of escape.
Are there spiders in Iceland?
Arachnophobes fear not, as there are very few spiders to be found in Iceland. But the even better news is that none are dangerous to humans. The garden spider is the most likely eight-legged creature you may run into around these parts, so, nothing close to the terrifying tarantulas you might find around the Asian continent, for example.
Are there wolves in Iceland?
There are currently no wolves in Iceland. However, in the ninth century, at the time of settlement, numerous wolves roamed the landscape. Due to this, the wolf has become a popular feature of Icelandic mythology.