The polar bear is the biggest predator, and perhaps the essence of the term wildlife. The white polar bear adorns Greenland’s national coat of arms as the symbol for an extensive country that is also home to other distinctive animals such as the musk ox, the narwhal and the walrus.
Along with the reindeer, the musk ox is one of the land mammals which travellers have the greatest chance of seeing, especially in the vicinity of Kangerlussuaq. The polar bear is a rare visitor to inhabited areas, and is only often seen in remote hunting grounds in North and East Greenland.
Wolves, arctic foxes, mountain hares and other small land mammals are also to be found, but are not often seen close to civilisation. Around 60 species of bird breed in Greenland, including the white-tailed eagle.
Whales can be seen all over Greenland, particularly during the summer months. It is most common to see fin whales, humpback whales and minke whales, in addition to species such as the bowhead whale, blue whale and sperm whale, which also frequent Greenlandic waters.
MAN AND WILDLIFE IN GREENLAND
The land mammals immigrated, just like humans, from Canada and Alaska several thousand years ago. Both land and sea mammals have always been an important resource for Greenlanders. The animals have played a key role as the people’s means of existence and also in terms of their philosophy of life.
Today, hunting is an important source of income for only a handful of Greenlanders. For the vast majority it is simply a hobby.
Sustainable trophy hunting of animals such as musk oxen and seals is open to tourists at certain places in Greenland. The hunt takes place with qualified guides who ensure a proper hunt in which nothing goes to waste.
Birdlife of Greenland
The majority of Greenland’s birds are migratory, meaning that there are only around 60 species regarded as permanent breeders in the country. A total of 235 species of birds have been observed in Greenland, and you can read about the most common or the most spectacular breeding birds below:
THE WHITE-TAILED EAGLE – THE LARGEST BIRD OF PREY
Among the most striking species is the white-tailed eagle – or nattoralik, as it is called in Greenlandic. The white-tailed eagle is Greenland’s largest breeding bird.
It lives primarily on fish such as cod and char, but also on carrion and sea birds such as eider. The Greenlandic white-tailed eagle is slightly bigger than its counterparts in other parts of the world.
It is found in particular along the southern part of the west coast down to Cape Farewell. The white-tailed eagle is a fully protected species in Greenland.
THE FULMAR – THE CHARACTERISTIC PETREL
The fulmar – qaqulluk – is a compact little gliding bird, which is often seen with stiff wings hovering just above the water, even when the sea is rough. It resembles the seagull, but is actually a part of the petrel-family.
The fulmar is the bird that is seen most frequently in Greenlandic waters, particularly at Disko Bay and further to the north.
THE BLACK GUILLEMOT – THE MOST COMMON AUK
This auk is the most common breeding bird in Greenland, and is often seen on the wing just above the water or at some of the country’s major bird colonies.
The Brünnich’s guillemot (appa) is another important auk whose breast is a popular delicacy found on the menu of many restaurants.
EIDER – A COMMON SEA DUCK
The eider, or aavooq, is the most important breeding wild fowl in Greenland. It is particularly common in coastal regions all over Greenland and broods on small islands and rocks.
When young, the bird is almost indistinguishable from the king eider (miteq siorakitsoq), which is also a sea duck, but which is most common in the northeast of Greenland.
PTARMIGAN – GREENLAND’S ONLY GALLINACEOUS BIRD
The ptarmigan – aqisseq – breeds all over Greenland and can be seen in practically any kind of terrain.
It is a popular delicacy and the population thus varies from year to year. The ptarmigan changes its plumage according to the season and, being white in winter and grey in summer.
OTHER BIRDS IN GREENLAND
In addition to the birds above, a number of other birds should also be mentioned. The black raven, in particular, is probably the bird that the majority of people notice. The raven is in the crow family and breeds all over the country.
Its characteristic croaking call can be heard very clearly if you are out hiking.
The snow bunting is another very common bird that leaves Greenland in about September and returns in March. Greenland also has two species of falcon – the peregrine falcon and the gerfalcon – which are both protected species.
The five different species of seal are virtually synonymous with Greenland and the hunter culture. The seal can be seen anywhere along Greenland’s extensive coastline.
THE MOST COMMON SEALS IN GREENLAND
In the sea around Greenland there live five species of seal, of which the ringed seal, the harp seal and the hooded seal are the most common.
The bearded seal and the common seal are relatively rare. None of the species are threatened by extinction, but the common seal, which is not really an Arctic seal species, is thought to be dwindling in numbers in West Greenland.
Nowhere in Greenland are seal pups killed – only natural circumstances play a role, such as when the polar bear or the arctic fox pick up the scent of the ringed seal’s hollow in a snowdrift, where it gives birth to its young in March-April.
THE RINGED SEAL
The ringed seal is the smallest species of seal, and it can weigh up to 100 kg (220 lbs). Its skin is characterised by ring-shaped markings, primarily on its dark grey back.
It mainly lives in fjords where there are ice fells and in areas where the sea freezes in winter. Although the sea ice can be up to two metres (6½ feet) thick, the ringed seal manages to keep a number of breathing holes open and thereby survive.
THE HARP SEAL
The harp seal is the most common species of seal in Greenland. It comes to the southern part of Greenland around May on its journey north from its breeding grounds around Newfoundland.
On sailing trips in the fjords and archipelagos you can see groups of harp seals – perhaps 20-30 strong – frolicking on the surface of the water.
THE HOODED SEAL
The hooded seal is the largest of the five species of seal with a weight of up to 400 kg (880 lbs). The male seals can be distinguished by a large bulge on their head which they can inflate when angry.
The majority of hooded seals are caught in Southwest Greenland, which they pass twice a year on their migration route between the breeding and moulting grounds. A large number are also caught in East Greenland.
“Earlier it was primarily the skin from the hooded seal that was used to cover kayaks (qajaq) and umiaks (umiaq).
There are two types of Arctic fox in Greenland. Only one of these has the distinctive white winter coat and it lives in the tundra and up along the coastal areas.
THE WHITE AND BLUE ARCTIC FOX
In Greenland there are two races of the arctic fox, the white and the blue, which both change colour during the summer and winter.
The white arctic fox’s coat changes during the summer to a more mottled grey-brown shade on the back with grey and white tones on the belly. The blue arctic fox changes from a dark grey-brown summer coat to a grey-black coat in the winter with a bluish tinge.
It is estimated that there are similar numbers of both species in Greenland, except during the years in which the lemming population is in decline.
Lemmings are the white arctic fox’s most important prey, and a fall in the population of lemmings consequently also has an impact on the number of white arctic foxes.
DIET AND SIZE
The arctic fox is a carnivore that lives on the remains of the polar bear’s prey, as well as mountain hares, lemmings, fish, crustaceans, molluscs, mussels, bird’s eggs, and also insects and berries.
The white arctic fox finds most of its food on the tundra, whilst the blue arctic fox forages along the coast where it finds its food in connection with tidal movements.
The arctic fox can weigh up to 8 kilos (17½ lbs), and grow to a length of 70 cm (27 inches) with a tail of 35 cm (14 inches).
The arctic fox is found all over Greenland and is only hunted to a limited extent. It is not a threatened species.
From a distance, musk oxen look like large, brown stones. However, there is every reason to take a closer look at Greenland’s largest land mammal.
THE LARGEST LAND MAMMAL IN GREENLAND
The musk ox is the largest land mammal in Greenland. When approaching Kangerlussuaq you may be lucky enough to get a glimpse of one of the many herds of musk oxen in the area.
From the plane they can look like large brown stony knolls – until they begin moving, and then you know that they are musk oxen weighing up to 400 kilos (880 lbs) each.
MUSK OXEN in KANGERLUSSUAQ
You do not have to venture far from the airport area in Kangerlussuaq to get a good chance of seeing these large animals at closer range.
The most obvious method is to go on a musk ox safari. A slightly more spectacular alternative a few years ago was to see Willy, an enormous bull, on the runway itself.
Fortunately this is no longer possible as neither Willy, nor other members of his species, have access to the airport anymore. At Kangerlussuaq Museum you can learn more about Willy’s fate.
THE LONG-BEARDED OX
Directly translated, Umimmak, the Greenlandic name for the musk ox, means “the long-bearded one”. This long “beard” is one of the things that is used by Greenlanders. The musk ox’s innermost coat, the wool layer, can also be used to make a wealth of exclusive handicrafts and clothing.
Reindeer have been living wild in Greenland for thousands of years – and have always been important prey for hunters.
IN GREENLAND FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS
Reindeer have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years and during that time have made up a major part of the staple diet of humans living in the area.
The reindeer in Greenland belongs to the deer family and is the only species of deer in Greenland. At the same time, the reindeer is the most widespread land mammal on most of the west coast of Greenland.
There are therefore good chances of seeing reindeer on a hike in the Greenlandic fells, in particular in the area between Paamiut and Uummannaq.
The reindeer is a shy animal, and reacts very quickly to sudden sounds or movements as well as the smell of strangers.
If you want the chance to take pictures or even just approach a reindeer, you must as far as possible approach it downwind so that the reindeer will have more difficulty in smelling you. Once it catches your scent, the reindeer can gallop away at a speed of 70 kilometres an hour (45 mph).
However, if there is a large herd of reindeer, it is more likely that they will just continue chewing their food, as they feel more secure when many of them are gathered together.
In the late summer or autumn you can see reindeer being hunted at many places on Greenland’s west coast.
In the harbour areas you can see people sailing in with the spoils of the hunt, where much of the meat is sold at “the board”, which is a local meat and fish market.
Outside private homes you can see meat maturing or drying. Dishes with reindeer meat are a real Greenlandic delicacy served at many hotels and restaurants. At many places in Greenland you can buy souvenirs fashioned from reindeer antlers.
The polar bear is the world’s largest land predator and an animal of immense strength. The chances of seeing a polar bear are greatest on boat trips.
A SYMBOL OF THE ARCTIC
The polar bear is the world’s largest land-based predator and is thus larger than other species of bear. Its compelling power has made it a popular symbol of strength in the Arctic world, and the Government of Greenland uses the polar bear in the official national coat of arms.
POLAR BEARS AROUND GREENLAND
In Greenland the polar bear lives and breeds in the northernmost parts of West Greenland and in Northeast Greenland, but is also occasionally seen elsewhere in the country, as it moves with the drifting ice.
However, it is extremely rare for either local inhabitants or tourists to see a living polar bear. The chances of seeing a polar bear are greatest when sailing by ship along the coast.
They are relatively easy to spot due to their off-white fur, which is clearly distinguishable against the pack ice or the landscape.
GREAT UTILITY VALUE
The Greenlandic polar bear may only be hunted in quite special circumstances, but when an animal is killed, there is – as with all other animals hunted in Greenland – a tradition to utilise the whole animal.
For example, the meat is eaten, the skull is used as a trophy, the claws as jewellery and the hide for trousers or kamik.
ENVIRONMENTAL POLLUTION IS THREATENING THE BEAR
The polar bear is not threatened by hunting, but rather by environmental pollution. So-called POPs (persistent organic pollutants) have been discovered in very high concentrations in polar bears from East Greenland and Svalbard. This has led to concern about the polar bear’s ability to reproduce.
At the same time the effects of global warming mean that the Arctic ice is melting, thereby further reducing the polar bear’s natural habitat.
With its body weighing up to one tonne and its 50 cm tusk, the walrus commands great respect – both from other predators and hunters.
The walrus, with its large body and highly distinctive tusks, is easily recognizable. Its tusks can grow up to 50 centimetres (20 inches) in length and are used by the walrus as a useful tool, for example when hauling itself up onto an ice floe.
The tusks are also used in self-defence when killer whales or polar bears attack the walrus, which can be up to 3 metres (10 feet) in length and weigh 1000 kg (2,200 lbs).
WHERE TO FIND WALRUSES
Walruses are seen on land and along the coast throughout East Greenland, in particular between 63° and 81° N. In North Greenland, the Davis Strait, Baffin Bay and the Thule district are the best places to see walruses.
In West Greenland – where the walrus does not venture onto land – they can be seen between Sisimiut and the Thule district in the north.
Considering that Greenland’s coastline is more than 44,000 km (27,500 miles) in length, walruses are relatively few in number.
FORAGE FOR FOOD
Walruses generally stay close to the edge of the sea ice or on drifting ice floes where the depth of the sea is less than 100 metres (330 feet). Here they can dive to pick up mussels and molluscs, which make up their chief sources of nutrition, and it is thought that they use their tusks to scrape the seabed looking for food.
HUNTING FOR WALRUSES
For the Inuits, the walrus has always been an important animal to hunt, and one which was also particularly dangerous to meet in a kayak. Its beautiful tusks have afforded it respect in Greenlandic myths and legends, but also almost cost it its existence due to intensive hunting by foreign companies which began as early as the 17th century.
In 1952 the walrus became a fully protected species, and since that time populations have gradually recovered.
Today quota-based hunting of the walrus takes place in Greenland’s hunting districts, and the export of souvenir products from the walrus requires a CITES certificate, which can be obtained from tourist offices or in souvenir shops.
The seas around Greenland are teeming with whales. Greenlandic waters have 15 different species of whale, including the humpback and the Greenland whale.
In the spring, around the Disko Bay area in late May, the Greenland whale can be met close to the land.
Around 15 species of whale are regular visitors to Greenlandic waters, but only three of these – the beluga whale, the narwhal and the bowhead whale – remain in Greenland during the winter. Whale species such as the blue whale and killer whale are only rarely seen.
During brief stays in Greenland in the summer season it is, however, usually completely different species that can be seen: the humpback whale, minke whale and fin whale.
In spite of being 18 metres (59 feet) long and weighing some 30 tonnes (66,000 lbs), the humpback whale is the acrobat amongst the large whales.
Whales of all ages jump out of the water and flick their tails and flippers. This whale is easily recognisable on account of its humped dorsal fin and white flippers, and it usually lifts its tail when diving.
The minke whale, which is also called the lesser rorqual, is a relatively small whale that grows to a size of just 10 metres (33 feet) and weighs no more than 10 tonnes (22,000 lbs).
Minke whales have been seen jumping out of the water, but in Greenlandic waters it is most common to see just the dorsal fin and spout.
The whale is seen in fjords and along the coasts in South- and West Greenland up to Disko Bay – typically from May to October. Minke whales are, however, known for appearing at unusual places at odd times of the year.
There are no whale safaris that are designed to look for minke whales in particular, but you can often see them on sailing trips.
The fin whale can be 27 metres (89 feet) long and is thus the world’s second largest species, surpassed only by the blue whale which is 33 metres.
It can weigh up to 100 tonnes (220,000 lbs) and is occasionally seen on boat trips around Uummannaq in particular, but also around Qaqortoq and in Disko Bay, as well as very occasionally in Greenland’s fjords.
Fish, squid and small crustaceans make up its primary food source. The fin whale rarely lifts its tail when diving, but does occasionally jump out of the water and splash with its flippers in the water.
In Greenland you normally only see three species of whale during the winter and part of the spring season, but on the other hand the whales that you do see during this period are quite unusual whales that are not seen in many other parts of the world – namely the bowhead whale, narwhal and beluga whale.
The bowhead whale is an Arctic species that typically frequents the seas around Qeqertarsuaq on Disko Island in spring before setting course in the middle of May for the northern part of Baffin Bay, the sea between Canada and Greenland.
The bowhead whale can live to an age of 200, and in the 17th and 18th centuries was the whalers’ preferred catch.
This whale can weigh up to 90 tonnes (198,000 lbs) and have a maximum length of 20 metres (66 feet). Compared to all other whale species, the bowhead whale has the thickest layer of blubber (25-45 cm / 10-18 inches) and the longest whalebone (3.5 m /11.5 feet).
The narwhal is a medium-sized toothed whale that typically weighs between 800-1600 kg (1750-3500 lbs).
It is most well-known for its distinctive spiralling tusk which in some males can reach a length of up to 3 metres (10 feet) – in addition to a body length of 4-5 metres (13-16.5 feet).
The tusks are used in mating combat, where the struggle can be so intense that the tusks sometimes shatter. In the Middle Ages narwhal tusks were traded like unicorn horns and were an extremely valuable commodity for trade between Inuits and the Norse settlers.
In Greenland narwhals are most frequently seen in Melville Bay, in the area around Qaanaaq and in Northeast Greenland in the summer season.
The beluga whale is, like the narwhal, a medium-sized toothed whale. It has a length ranging from 3 to 5 metres (10-16.5 feet) and typically weighs between 400-1500 kg (900-3300 lbs).
The beluga whale is often seen in small groups of 5 to 10 animals, but has also been seen in groups of several thousand.
The beluga whale can dive to depths of 600 metres (2000 feet) for periods of up to 15 minutes. Diving is typically performed with 5-6 flat dives followed by deeper and deeper dives looking for fish, squid and crustaceans.
In Greenland beluga whales are seen between Maniitsoq and Disko Bay as well as at Qaanaaq and Upernavik.
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