The diversity of flora and fauna in Iceland is quite small, to be honest. There are several reasons why that is. The most significant one is the short growing season, isolation from other continents and a very harsh climate. The same is true with cultivating grain; only the toughest will survive. It’s a bit similar when it comes to animals. Even those that were brought from Europe a long time ago developed their own defense mechanisms.
Iceland is a perfect travel destination for many reasons. Hundreds of people every year are attracted by the winter show of the Northern Lights. Others come to see the magnificent waterfalls and others to hike on the best Landmannalaugar hiking trails in Europe. Iceland, however, is the perfect place for nature lovers and those who are especially fascinated by animals and birds.
Despite the relatively limited number of species inhabiting our small, cold island, they will definitely not leave it disappointed. Traveling around Iceland can provide the opportunity to encounter several unique animal species. With a little bit of luck and determination, you will be able to come across really rare specimens. So keep your eyes peeled because every corner can contain a hidden surprise. To make it easier for you, we will go through all the species that can be found in Iceland and will give you a rough idea where you will have the best chance of seeing them.
Iceland’s national animal
Every country has a national animal, which is more like a symbol of a certain part of the world. You hear the name and straight away you associate it with a certain place. Bolivia has alpacas, China has its very famous pandas. Thailand has always been connected with elephants and so on and so on. Iceland is not an exception and also has a national animal which is actually a bird. Most of you would probably say that it was a puffin which you can see almost everywhere around Iceland and every other picture on Google when you type in Iceland shows this bird. This can be misleading indeed.
The national animal of Iceland is in fact a bird of prey called the Gyrfalcon. It is the largest bird of the falcon species. It inhabits the Arctic part of Eurasia and North America. It also nests in the Scandinavian peninsula and Iceland.
What animals are native to Iceland?
Birds are the most diverse and numerous group of animals living in Iceland. Here you will be able to observe: whooper swans, terns, gulls, dives, gannets, geese, lapwings, and many many others. Among these there is our famous puffin which can fairly be called a symbol of Iceland. You can find this colorful bird everywhere you go. It is the main theme for the souvenirs and clothing design. It is a black and white medium-sized bird with a colorful beak. Everyone who arrives on the island hopes to see one. Puffins are called the north parrot because of their resemblance to a parrot mixed up a little with a penguin. In Iceland, you will be able to observe them only during the nesting season, which is from mid-May to mid-August. Puffins spend the rest of the year at sea away from the land so do not be surprised if you will not see any during your visit. The best places to see them are the islands of Heimaey and Grimsey, the cliffs in Latrabjarg (Western Frords), Dyrholaey peninsula. You can also observe them from Reynisfjara black beach.
A larger predator naturally living in Iceland is the Arctic fox. Depending on the season, this animal changes the color of its fur. They are white in the winter and brown in the summer. Sometimes you can find black foxes which retain their color throughout the whole year. Unlike puffins, who can pose for you so you can take a nice picture, these creatures are quite shy and are scared of humans. You will be very lucky if you encounter one. The Arctix fox is 100% native to Iceland. It was once the only mammal living in Iceland before humans came. They appeared on this small, cold island during the Ice Age.
Arctic foxes can be found anywhere in Iceland but the most inhabited areas are the Western Fjords. They are especially numerous in the Hornstrandir Nature Park in the North of Iceland where the foxes are under protection. These foxes are very easy to photograph because they have no fear of humans. If you dream of a photo of this cute fluffy animal, you know where to go.
Another species which is native to Iceland is this seal. On the coasts of Iceland, you can encounter two kinds of seals - the common seal and gray seal. Although they live all around the island, the best places to observe them are the Western Fjords, Vatnsnes Peninsula, Snaefellsness Peninsula and also the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. If you decide to go on a boat tour in the glacier lagoon, you have a really great chance to spot the seals. The tour guides always try to go very close to the icebergs with the boats where the seals relax and then switch off the boat's engines so they do not get scared off.
Whales and dolphins
Icelandic waters are home to many species of fish. Among the most common ones you can find here are whales, humback, dolphins, orcas and porpoises. To have the best chance of seeing these majestic giants, you should go on a boat cruise. There are many companies that offer whale watching tours and the most famous city where you can find them in Husavik. Don’t worry if you don’t see any during your trip. Most of the companies offer a second cruise free of charge so you have a 100% chance to see the whales and dolphins during your tour.
Orcas, which are also called killer whales, can mostly be seen in the Snaefellsness Peninsula. Winter and early summer are the best time to observe them, so bear that in mind when planning your trip to Iceland.
There are also certain animals in Iceland which were brought here by humans. The best example are reindeers. Those animals were brought to Iceland in the 18th century. They settled in the East of the country and their wild herds can be mostly observed there. The plan was to domesticate them but in the end, Icelanders decided to release the herds. Since then, reindeers run wild in Iceland. Their population is constantly monitored to make sure it stays within desired limits. This animal is also protected here. Reindeers are very distrustful and as soon as they pick up the scent of a human, they immediately escape so it is not easy to observe them in the wild.
The Icelandic horse is one of the most popular animals here. It is also called a pony but I would not recommend you say that to any Icelander! Do not say that you were not warned!
It is currently the purest breed among horses. It has been forbidden to bring horses to the island for 800 years. The Icelandic horse is small; much smaller than the horses you have probably seen so far and super friendly. Unlike other wild animals in Iceland, it is impossible not to see it around Iceland. They are also very friendly so do not be surprised if one approaches you to take a selfie with you. Its population on the island is so large that there are lots of opportunities to observe them. And good news for lovers of horseback riding: many companies offer day tours where you can enjoy the Icelandic landscape from by horse.
Are there dangerous animals in Iceland?
Many of you before coming to Iceland are curious if there are any dangerous animals you should be afraid of. There’s a popular belief that there are polar bears in Iceland. This is wrong though because polar bears do not live in Iceland. They occasionally arrive on the icebergs floating from Greenland and appear in the Western Fjords.
When they finally arrive at the cost of Iceland, they are starving and this is where they can be dangerous for humans. Unfortunately, the cost of capturing them, feeding and taking them back home is so high, they are killed straight away when they appear in Iceland. The last polar bear was seen in Iceland in 2018. Because of climate change and melting glaciers, there is a possibility of more and more bears coming to visit Iceland so keep your eyes wide peeled.