There are nine land mammals in Greenland, which is not many for such an enormous country as Greenland, but it also requires extraordinary characteristics to survive the cold and harsh winters. Greenlandic land mammals are characterised by having thick furs and unique abilities to find food.
In addition to the land mammals mentioned above, there are also Arctic wolves, stoats, Arctic lemmings and the rare wolverine in Greenland, but these species predominantly live in the northernmost and north-eastern Greenland, where no humans live. In many of Greenland’s urban areas, you can also encounter mice and rats. However, they are not native, but brought in, for example, via ships.
Ursus maritimus (LAT)
The polar bear is one of Greenland’s most iconic animals and the world’s largest land predator. The male can grow up to 3 metres long and weigh over 800 kg, but typically weighs 5-600 kg. The female is somewhat smaller, up to 400 kg. The fur is white, greyish-white or white-yellow, and their nose and lips are black just like their skin underneath the dense, insulating fur.
The polar bear travels where there is sea ice, and only comes ashore when the ice becomes too thin or when the female has to give birth. They are most frequently found in North and Northeast Greenland but travel along the entire east coast, and they can travel all the way to South Greenland with the drifting ice (especially around Nanortalik). They are extremely rare on the west coast from Upernavik and down to Paamiut.
The ringed seal is the polar bear’s favourite prey, but it also kills other seal species and even beluga and narwhal. Fish, seabirds, bird eggs, whale carrion and plants are also on the menu. It can take a long time for it to catch prey, so when it does, it will gorge and eat up to 70 kg.
The polar bears mate in the spring, and the pregnant females go ashore in October-November to dig a cave in deep snow. Around New Year, one-two cubs are born, and they stay in the cave until April, after which they follow the mother out on the ice. Usually, the cubs and mothers remain together for over two years, which is why the female only has cubs every three years.
Across the Arctic, there are an estimated 20-25,000 polar bears, a large proportion of whom live in or visit Greenland. The polar bear is threatened by the disappearance of the sea ice caused by global climate change, which may mean that they come ashore more often and are therefore in close contact with people.
For the traveller, it is quite unlikely to meet a polar bear in Greenland, because they prefer the cold and deserted north and east. The best chance to spot a polar bear is by cruise ship to East Greenland or in the area around Qaanaaq. If there is a risk of polar bears, then make sure you are well prepared and take a look at our infographic about encountering polar bears.
Vulpes lagopus (LAT)
The Arctic fox is found throughout Greenland. It can grow up to 1 metre long, including a 30 cm bushy tail. There are two types of Arctic fox – the blue fox and white fox, which are genetically very similar, but in addition to fur colour, they also differ in lifestyle.
The blue fox’s fur is dark brown to grey-black all year round, while the white fox’s fur changes from entirely white in winter to brown in summer (with a whitish chest and belly). The winter coat is three times thicker than the summer coat and is considered to be the warmest coat in the world.
The blue fox is a coastal animal where it feeds from the sea: fish, seal cubs, crustaceans, clams, mussels, seabirds, bird eggs, insects and seaweed. The white fox, on the other hand, stays inland, where it mainly feeds on Arctic lemmings, and where there are none of these, on Arctic hares and some of the same things as blue foxes.
In the spring, the foxes form pairs that can last a lifetime. They live in caves underground that can be over 300-years-old and widely branched. The female gives birth to 5-10 cubs and up to 19, and so has some of the largest litters among predators.
As the Arctic fox is hunted, it is usually very shy of humans. However, you can usually see it on a hike in the mountains if you do not make too much noise. In winter, you can also see them running on the sea ice. Where it is not hunted, for example, in the National Park, they can become very confident and get close to people.
Lepus arcticus (LAT)
The Arctic hare is found only in Greenland and northern Canada and is the northernmost hare in the world. It has an entirely white coat with black ear tips. However, in southern Greenland, their summer coat may have a greyish upper side.
The Arctic hare is common throughout Greenland except on the southeast coast. It is most frequently found north, where you can see them in droves of up to 100. Intense hunting has made it somewhat shy and difficult to see, but in the National Park, where it is protected, you can experience them at a distance of just a few metres.
The Arctic hare lives on a varied vegetarian diet of grasses, herbs, buds, shoots, bark and roots. With its powerful claws, it can even dig food up from under compact snow. It has a thin layer of fat, but a very insulating coat that allows it to live in the coldest areas.
In winter, the Arctic hares often live in groups until the mating season in April, when they split up. In June-July, the female gives birth to 3-8 young, or leverets as they are called, who are alone in the nest and only visited by their mother in the evening to be fed.
Many leverets end up as prey, although they are good at hiding under stones and are camouflaged with their grey-brown colour. With a top speed of over 60 km/h, the adult Arctic hares are rarely caught by predators.
Barren-ground Caribou (Reindeer)
Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus (LAT)
The Greenlandic reindeer is of the tundra subspecies. The male can weigh up to 300 kg, while the female typically weighs 100-150 kg. The reindeer is the only deer in which both sexes have antlers. However, the male’s antlers are by far the largest and can weigh up to 15 kg and measure 1½ metres.
The reindeer’s winter coat is dense with long, whitish guard hair and brown undercoat. The outer coat moults in the spring revealing the brown colour, but with a light chest and belly.
The reindeer live wild in large parts of West Greenland. There are herds in Inglefield Land north of Qaanaaq, on the Nuussuaq Peninsula and in the area from Ilulissat Ice Fjord to Kangerlussuaq and all the way to Neria Fjord south of Paamiut. There is a good chance of seeing reindeer when hiking in the mountains in these areas. In West Greenland, many people hunt reindeer during the hunting season from August to September.
The reindeer population has historically varied tremendously. From 1970 to 1980, the number dropped from about 100,000 to 8,000 as a result of cold climates, overgrazing and hunting pressure. In 2001, the population was again at 140,000 and today is around 100,000. There are also vulnerable and escaped domestic reindeer at, for example, Nuuk and Qaqortoq. The East Greenlandic reindeer became extinct in 1899.
The reindeer lives on dwarf shrub heath, grassland and mountain fields, where it feeds mostly on grasses and fresh leaves. In winter, as the only mammal, it eats lichen, including reindeer moss, which it digs up from the snow with its hoofs.
The rutting season is September to October, with the males having deadly fights to acquire a harem of females. The female gives birth to a single calf in June. Reindeer can travel long distances in search of food, and it has a top speed of 80 km/h and can trot at an even speed for hours.
Ovibos moschatus (LAT)
The musk ox is a powerfully built ungulate with a compact body, short legs, a large head and a long-haired, dark brown coat. The males can weigh up to 400 kg and measure 160 cm at shoulder height. The females are slightly smaller.
The horns of the musk ox curve downwards and outwards from the forehead, which in the male has a 15-20 cm thick browband. The undercoat consists of a very dense layer of underwool called qiviut, which helps keep the body warm even at temperatures below -45°C. The animals moult in the spring.
The musk ox is naturally found in North and Northeast Greenland from Washington Land to just south of Ittoqqortoormiit. The population here numbers about 10,000 animals.
There are also many vulnerable herds: Inglefield Land, the Qaanaaq area, Svartenhuk, Lersletten, central West Greenland and Arsuk Fjord. These herds have increased more than the original despite some being reduced by hunting, and work is also being done to release animals in South Greenland.
The musk ox is a ruminant with a particularly excellent ability to extract energy from its food via very slow digestion. It eats grasses, willow, dwarf birch and herbs, and uses its hooves to dig loose snow in winter. It can also break through hard snow and ice with its browband and horns.
The mating season is August to October, where the strongest bulls gather a herd of females. During rutting, the bulls fight fierce battles by hammering their thick browband against each other at 40 km/h with a loud bang. The cow gives birth to a single calf at the end of winter, which follows the mother and herd for 1½ years.