Documentary filmmaking is full of challenges, and we know first-hand that when wildlife is involved, things can be especially unpredictable. Our wildlife filmmakers have been kissed by honey badgers, attacked by ornery eels and even sniffed by the odd lioness, but for a PBS Nature film crew who recently braved harsh conditions to capture footage of Arctic foxes, it was their remote camera traps that suffered an "attack" (scroll down for the full video).

Image: PBS Nature/YouTube

This isn't the first time an animal has launched an assault on a camera: we've seen similar behaviour from lions, hyenas, and squirrels (to name a few). But the team at PBS Nature, who filmed this fox-filled encounter, note that there may be a reason for the youngsters' curiosity.

"Their brazenness may come from having few predators in this landscape," they explain in the clip taken from a new series called "Fox Tales." It could also be that living in large groups like this gives baby foxes (known as kits or pups) a sense of security. After all, there's safety in numbers.

"Either way," says the team, "it didn't take these pups long to walk right up to our motion-sensor cameras and have their way with them."

Unlike their red cousins, Arctic foxes are incredibly well adapted to the icy territories they call home. For starters, they're smaller than many other fox species, which helps reduce heat loss. A small snout and ears hold warmth more efficiently than longer features, and short legs support boosted blood flow to the foot pads (which keeps them from freezing).

What's more, that dense coat is ranked among the best insulators in the animal kingdom. Studies have shown that Arctic fox fur can hold up against temperatures below -50 degrees Celsius (-58F). That's critical for an animal known to trot some 500 miles (805 km) across the pack ice each year.

As you can see in the clip above, though, the tundra isn't just a barren expanse. In fact, Arctic fox dens are known to act like oases in a desert.  "They're really permanent fixtures of the landscape," explains University of Manitoba biologist Dr. James Roth, who worked on the "Fox Tales" series.

Astoundingly, these underground abodes can be a century old – and over time they can actually change the lay of the land. Arctic foxes are voracious hunters, and they tend to leave leftovers lying in and around their dens. That nutrient-rich decomposing flesh, combined with fox urine and faeces, helps fertilise the soil and promote plant growth.

"We see Caribou on these dens, feeding on the vegetation that springs up around them," says Roth. "We see ravens, and eagles, and gulls. Even wolves and polar bears."

Top predators, he explains, scavenge goose carcasses left behind by Arctic foxes. "That was really cool for me to document," he adds.

Historically, Arctic foxes have had no trouble holding their ground against interlopers, as very few animals can withstand the harsh tundra in which they live. However, red foxes have begun expanding their territories in recent years, taking full advantage of a shifting environment. Scientists first spotted the trend back in 2013, when Arctic fox numbers hit a drastic low in Canada. At the time, red foxes had been recorded near Arctic fox dens, but it was unclear if the two findings were correlated.

According to PBS Nature, Roth now feels confident that red foxes are having a direct effect on their smaller cousins, both by killing their kin, and by taking over their tunnels with increasing frequency. Exactly how big a toll that evolving situation will take on Arctic foxes remains to be seen.



Top header image: Paul Williams