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Wildlife in Greenland

The coastal ice-free fringe of Greenland supports a range of mammals and birds living in the seas, fjords and protected areas, offering nature lovers a unique wildlife experience.

4 mins read

An Arctic web of life

With under 60,000 people living in an area of over 836,000 square miles, the overwhelming majority of Greenland remains genuinely wild and undisturbed. Despite its northerly latitude a variety of wildlife is able to prosper in the deep fjords, on remote islands and along the peaceful shores. The whole island is in fact one vast, interconnected ecosystem, supporting a delicate web of life.

With around four fifths of Greenland covered by an inhospitable ice sheet, most wildlife is to be found around the country’s ice-free periphery, which when added up covers an area roughly the size of Germany. Coastal waters rich in fish create ideal conditions for shore-based life to thrive, such as seals and birds, which are prey for predators including polar bears and Arctic foxes.

Warm blood in a cold climate

The short summers and cold winters in Greenland make survival a challenge for warm blooded animals, nevertheless nine species of native mammal have adapted to this harsh environment. All of them have thick fur for insulation, and three species – polar bears, Arctic hares and Arctic foxes – have white coats to help camouflage them against the snow.

Translucent fur

Although classified as a marine mammal, polar bears are not, as you might think, a completely unique species. In fact, they are really a sister species of the brown bear that has evolved to live north of the Arctic Circle. These warm-blooded creatures retain heat using a combination of dense body fat and translucent fur composed of hollow hairs which trap air and diffuse light. Surprisingly, their skin under all that fur is black, meaning they can absorb the sun’s rays more efficiently.

One of the more commonly sighted mammals is the musk ox, albeit usually well away from human settlements. The less frequently sighted warm-blooded animals include Arctic lemmings, reindeer, stoats, Arctic wolves, wolverines and polar bears, all of which live in remote areas. Domesticated Greenland dogs, which are an everyday sight around some settlements, are in fact non-native having descended from Siberian wolves.

Warmer than wool

At first glance one might assume the musk ox is a type of bison, but the truth is they’re more closely related to goats. This may explain why the fur of their underbellies is so highly prized and said to be the warmest and softest form of wool on earth. Quiviut, as it’s called by Greenlanders, is traditionally collected from the moulted fur of wild musk oxen each spring and spun into yarn for hats and scarves.

Sea and shore life

As we cruise along the unspoiled coastline of Greenland, we’ll be on the lookout for the creatures that make the seas and shores their home. Sixteen species of cetacean have been recorded in coastal waters, including minke and humpback whales, while porpoises and dolphins are sometimes spotted feeding in the food-rich waters around fjords. Disko Bay is the best place for seeing whales.

What’s more, there’s a diverse range of birdlife, with around 230 observed species either living in Greenland year-round or else visiting as a seasonal migrant, including various birds of prey. Around the shores you might see skuas, Northern Fulmars and Glaucous Gulls, while on land, Lapland Buntings and Snow Buntings are common breeders.

Island dwellers

The Snow Bunting is unique in that it’s the most northerly breeding land-based bird. These small white songbirds arrive in the high Arctic in spring to claim their nesting sites. Often, these sites will be situated on nunataks, which are rocky protrusions in ice fields. Snow Buntings build their nests in cracks in the rocks, insulating them with feathers and bits of fur, and are one of the few species to inhabit these ‘islands’ dotting the landscape.

Your Expedition Team will take you to the locations which past experience has taught them are the best places to see wildlife, while the Science Center has a wealth of information about local nature for you to draw upon and help you get the best from your voyage to Greenland.

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Penguins perched on the ice of Cuverville Island, Antarctica. Credit: Espen Mills / HX Hurtigruten Expeditions

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