Arctic Char

Salvelinus alpinus

Last updated: August 1, 2022
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
© scanout/Shutterstock.com

Arctic char is the northern-most fish; no other fish lives anywhere further north!

Arctic Char Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Actinopterygii
Order
Salmoniformes
Family
Salmonidae
Genus
Salvelinus
Scientific Name
Salvelinus alpinus

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Arctic Char Conservation Status

Arctic Char Locations

Arctic Char Locations

Arctic Char Facts

Prey
Insects, Salmon Eggs, Zooplankton, Snails, Freshwater Shrimp, Smaller Fish
Name Of Young
Hatchling
Group Behavior
  • Solitary except during mating season
Fun Fact
Arctic char is the northern-most fish; no other fish lives anywhere further north!
Estimated Population Size
Unknown
Biggest Threat
Predators
Most Distinctive Feature
Colorful underbelly that ranges from red to yellow depending on the time of year and the local conditions.
Other Name(s)
Arctic Charr, Alpine Trout, Sea Trout, Alpine Char, Golets
Gestation Period
2-5 months
Litter Size
2500-8500 eggs
Habitat
Ocean for mating and spawning, freshwater at other times
Predators
Sea Otters, Humans, Larger Fish (Including Larger Char)
Diet
Carnivore
Type
Fish
Common Name
Arctic Char
Location
Northern lakes, rivers, and oceans
Group
Solitary except when mating

Arctic Char Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Brown
  • Grey
  • Yellow
  • Red
  • Black
  • Gold
  • Green
  • Orange
  • Pink
  • Dark Grey
  • Multi-colored
  • Pale Rose
Skin Type
Scales
Top Speed
1.16 mph
Lifespan
20+ Years
Weight
7oz-20lbs
Length
3"-38"
Age of Sexual Maturity
4-10 years
Age of Weaning
0 (immediately at birth)

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“The arctic char is the northernmost freshwater fish!”

Arctic char, also known by the scientific name Salvelinus alpinus, is a fish that is often confused with salmon or trout by those who are not experienced with fishing. They do have some similar features and are in the same family, but the arctic char is a unique fish. The arctic char is the northernmost freshwater fish! Some alpine lakes are inhabited solely by this hearty cold-water fish. They typically have a dark grey or brown color on top with an eye-catching underbelly that ranges in color from red to yellow.

Arctic Char Facts

  • Dwarf arctic char can be as small as 3 inches while giant arctic char can get up to 35 inches long.
  • There is no size difference between males and females.
  • Due to the many varieties found in different locations, the arctic char is sometimes called “the most variable vertebrate on earth.”
  • Arctic char are not picky eaters. They are opportunists, eating whatever suitable food comes their way.
  • During mating, males guard their territory and mate with multiple females.

Scientific Name

The scientific name of arctic char is Salvelinus alpinus. The word Salvelinus is derived from the German word for char – saibling. Alpinus is a Latin term referring to an alpine habitat.

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Arctic char also has many subspecies. In North America, there are three:

  • Salvelinus alpinus erythrinus – found on Canada’s northern coast
  • Salvelinus alpinus oquassa – also called blueback trout and Sunapee trout
  • Salvelinus alpinus taranetzi – a dwarf-sized subspecies of arctic char

There are also a few arctic char hybrids that have developed because arctic char are similar enough to trout to mate with them in some cases. Sparctic char is a hybrid of an arctic char and a brook trout.

Finally, there are also “morphs.” These are variations in the species that occur often. For example, dwarf char often exist in lakes. There can be two or more morphs living in the same lake or river. Many lakes have at least two morphs of arctic char.



Appearance

Arctic char can vary widely in appearance. For example, some can be pretty small, while others are quite a large catch. They have different belly colors depending on where they live. Fish that have recently spawned in freshwater have brightly colored bellies, usually reddish or orangeish. Those in the ocean are more silver. Regardless, their upper bodies are silver, grey, brown or green, and they have light pink or red spots.

Certain populations of arctic char are trapped in arctic lakes and do not return to the ocean each year. These populations tend to develop into dwarf arctic char, measuring only 8 centimeters when mature. However, ocean-faring char can grow up to 60 centimeters, although their average length is 40 centimeters.

The largest arctic char ever captured in a picture and published measured 105 centimeters and weighed more than 35 pounds. However, less verified records of arctic char go up to 110 centimeters and more than 44 pounds. On average, arctic char weigh just about 9 pounds.

arctic char
On average, an arctic char weighs 9 pounds.

©FedBul/Shutterstock.com

Arctic Char Behavior

Arctic char with access to the ocean are annual migratory swimmers. They are anadromous, meaning they can go between saltwater and freshwater. Every year in September or October, they go to their freshwater home to spawn and then return to the ocean once they are done. When they are in a river, they usually stay pretty close to the mouth.

Arctic Char Habitat

Arctic char are found in many cold northern lakes and rivers. They are the freshwater fish that is found the furthest north. In some lakes that are very far north, they are the only type of fish. They also can live in lakes where it is so cold that the ice never breaks.

They are also found at higher elevations than many other kinds of fish. In Norway, arctic char have been found as high up as about 1500 feet. They can also live in water that is deeper than many types of fish. Their habitats are wide and broad, and they are found in many countries, perhaps most notably Sweden, Finland, Iceland, the United States, and Canada.

Arctic Char Diet

Arctic char are not picky eaters, which could be a reason why they are so widespread. Lake and pond-bound populations adapt to eating what is available where they live. They can eat insects, zooplankton, other fish, and even other smaller char. They can eat food from the surface of the water or deeper down, giving them flexibility. Some experts believe the reason why so many morphs developed is that each one has a different preferred food source, allowing multiple populations to thrive in the same environment with less competition.

Arctic Char Predators, Threats, and Conservation Status

Arctic char are often eaten by sea otters, polar bears, ferox trout, humans, and other fish, including other arctic char.

Sea Otters

Some types of sea otters, like those found off the California coast, do not eat fish. However, others do, like those found in Alaska. They hunt with their sense of touch, using their whiskers and paws to hunt for fish, shellfish, and other treats. They may dive down to the ocean floor to hunt and then return to the surface to eat. Even when they find a good kill, they can store it in a pouch to find even more. They must eat 25% of their body weight every day, which is a lot of fish and crab! They can hold their breath for up to five minutes, which is enough time to nab an arctic char snack.

Polar Bears

Polar bears tend to eat fish only when their main sources of food are not available. They usually eat seals and larger prey. However, in certain areas where char come to spawn, polar bears can easily be spotted looking for a meal! Polar bears may use their “still hunting” method when looking for fish to eat. They stay still on a rock close to the surface of the water and wait for something tasty to come along.

Ferox Trout

Ferox trout are a type of trout found in Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales. They are a large trout that feeds mainly on arctic char, where it is available. Because of this, they are mostly found in lakes where there is a decent population of char.

Humans

If you eat any type of fish or seafood, you have probably seen arctic char on the menu once or twice. Humans hunt wild char and also farm them to create an abundant source of the tasty fish. Plus, eating char is better for the environment than some other types of fish. The Monterey Bay Aquarium rates it as a best choice fish for consumption due to its sustainability.

People who enjoy fishing also enjoy trying for char. They use large lures that reach deep into rivers and lakes to find the fish where they enjoy swimming. If you give it a try, be aware that in some areas, it is required or recommended to throw char back if it is under or over a certain size. Other areas have a limit on how many fish or how many pounds of fish you can take home with you.

Humans affect arctic char in another way. Several lake and river populations of char have been killed off due to acidification of the water or poor water quality. This can happen due to chemical runoff from commercial agriculture and other activities.

Other Threats

Climate change may affect the migration of the arctic char. As the temperature rises, they may return to the ocean earlier than usual. They prefer colder, deeper water because they require less food to sustain themselves in those temperatures. As oceans warm the size of their acceptable range may become affected.

Arctic Char Conservation Status

Arctic char is listed as a species of least concern on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List. This means that there are still abundant amounts of char in the wild, so they are not a priority for conservation efforts.

Arctic Char Reproduction, Babies, and Lifespan

Females only mate with one male, but it is common for males to have multiple partners. Male and female arctic char have something of a mating dance. First, the female clears a space for the nest, which is also called a redd. Then, the male swims in circles around the female. Next, the two swim next to each other. She releases between 2000 and 5000 eggs and he releases his “milt” which is fish sperm. The eggs hatch in the spring. Char don’t go to the ocean until they are between 5 and 7 years old or between 12 and 20 centimeters long.

The expected lifespan of arctic char is around 20 years, but the oldest arctic char ever found is estimated to be 40 years old!

Arctic Char Population

There are at least 50,000 unique populations of arctic char in the world. Over 250 of these are in Scotland, with another 350 of them in the British Isles. Not much is known about exactly how many arctic char there are in the world.

Similar Animals to Arctic Char

Arctic char are in the Salmonidae family which encompasses many types of salmon and trout. These species have some similarities.

  • Salmon – Both species live in the ocean but go back to freshwater to spawn. However, Pacific salmon die right after mating, although Atlantic salmon go on living to spawn multiple times, similar to arctic char. There are many species of salmon including:
  • Trout – Both species are greyish with some spots on them. However, you can tell them apart by char’s brightly colored belly.

Countries Where Arctic Char is Found

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About the Author

I'm a freelance writer who has been working in the field of content creation and digital marketing for more than seven years. My favorite topics to write about include health, animals, fitness, and nutrition, though as a professional content provider and ghostwriter, I can easily write about pretty much anything! I love all animals and have been some form of vegetarian or vegan for over 10 years. My favorite animals are cats, dogs, and chickens, especially my own cat, Tula.

Arctic Char FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Are arctic char carnivores, herbivores, or omnivores?

Arctic char are carnivores.

What does arctic char taste like?

According to some people, arctic char tastes like a mixture of salmon and trout, with an emphasis on trout flavors. Some have described the flavor as nutty, rich, and mild.

Is arctic char as healthy as salmon?

Arctic char has slightly less protein and slightly more fat than some types of salmon. However, it still has plenty of healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

What is the difference between arctic char and salmon?

Salmon have dark spots. Arctic char have lighter white, pink, or red spots. You can also tell the difference by the fins. Arctic char have fins with a whitish edge. Salmon do not.

How to say Arctic Char in ...
French
Omble chevalier
German
Saibling
Italian
Salmerino alpino
Japanese
Iwana
Spanish
Salvelino

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. Fishing World Records, Available here: http://www.fishing-worldrecords.com/scientificname/Salvelinus%20alpinus/show
  2. USGS, Available here: https://nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/factsheet.aspx?SpeciesID=935
  3. Maine.gov, Available here: https://www.maine.gov/ifw/fish-wildlife/fisheries/species-information/arctic-charr.html
  4. Fish Base, Available here: https://www.fishbase.de/summary/Salvelinus-fontinalis.html#:~:text=Etymology%3A%20Salvelinus%3A%20Old%20name%20for,1998).
  5. Animal Diversity, Available here: https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Salvelinus_alpinus/
  6. Port Perry Butcher, Available here: https://portperrybutcher.com/why-arctic-char/
  7. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sea_otter#Predators

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