Among the large land mammals are the musk ox, the reindeer, the polar bear and the white Arctic wolf. Other familiar mammals in Greenland include the Arctic hare, collared lemming, ermine and Arctic fox. Reindeer hunting is of considerable cultural importance to the people of Greenland.
Domesticated land mammals include dogs, which were introduced by the Inuit, as well as such European-introduced species as goats, Greenlandic sheep, oxen and pigs, which are raised in modest numbers in the south.
Although muskoxen look like large hairy cattle or bison, they are in fact relatives of goats and sheep. These animals live on the windswept tundra within the Arctic Circle. This habitat forms in places that are too cold and dry for trees to grow. There is only enough water to sustain grasses and other hardy plants.
The musk ox undertakes what is known as reverse migration, heading not to more sheltered lowland areas at the approach of the bitter Arctic winter, but out to the bleak, exposed uplands, where winds blow snow away. This allows them to find grazing.
The musk ox’s body is covered in long fur, except the area between lips and nostrils. The fur not only keeps the animal warm, but also protects it against the vast numbers of biting insects that swarm across the tundra during the short summer.
Both sexes of this species have large, hooked horns. Male musk ox are larger than females, because they must fight other males to win and defend a harem of females. They butt each other with their horns in contests of strength. During the mating season, the bulls produce a strong, musky odour. Muskoxen live in herds, usually of 15-20 animals but occasionally up to 100 strong. Their presence here often attracts wolves, hoping to overpower a young calf. When predators threaten, the herd crowds together, often in a circle or semi-circle, with the calves in the middle. This formation provides a highly effective defence, since adversaries are faced with a wall of horns and risk being gored if they attack.
Distribution: Occurs in parts of western and northern Alaska, through northern Canada west of Hudson Bay, up to Greenland, where it is more widespread in western areas.
Weight: 180 – 380 kg (396 – 836 lb).
Length: 210 – 259 cm (83 – 102 in), including tail.
Maturity: Females 3-4 years; males 5 – 6 years.
Gestation Period: About 255 days.
Breeding: Generally 1, occasionally twins; weaning occurs at 10 – 18 months.
Food: Grazes on grass and sedges, and browses on shrubs.
Lifespan: Typically 20-24 years.
Status: Common, although extinct in Alaska.
Horns The horns are low-set on the central area over the top of the head, called the boss. Coat Individual hairs may measure up to 61 cm (24 in), virtually trailing down to the ground. Legs The legs are free of longer hair, helping the musk ox to move through snow more easily. STAYING SAFE An adult charges out from the circle with its head down, directly at the wolves, while others maintain the defensive shield around the young.
In Greenland, hunting restrictions were first introduced in 1994 and expanded by executive order in 2005. Until 2005 Greenland placed no limit on hunting by indigenous people. However, in 2006 it imposed a limit of 150, while also allowed recreational hunting for the first time. Other provisions included year-round protection of cubs and mothers, restrictions on weapons used, and various administrative requirements to catalogue kills. More reading
The Evolution of the Polar Bear from brown bear to Arctic wonder
Estimates of when polar bears started splitting from brown bears continue to change as geneticists learn more about the polar bear’s genome.
Recent findings suggest that polar bears evolved from a common ancestor of the brown bear between 350,000-6 million
After beginning to branch off, the polar bear’s ancestors went through a series of evolutionary changes in order to survive in the Arctic.
How have they adapted?
As time went on and the bears moved North, they became superbly adapted to a life of hunting seals and surviving extreme cold.
From top to bottom, their bodies are perfectly coordinated with the seasonal shifts in the Arctic. Their fur covers a thick layer of fat, their ears and tails are small to limit heat loss, and their paws allow them to tread on thin ice. To learn more about polar bear characteristics, visit here. One of the most remarkable adaptations is their ability to thrive on a fat-rich diet without heart damage.
Interestingly, the research shows that after brown bears and polar bears separated, there were periods when they came into contact again, particularly with polar bear genes flowing into grizzlies.
Reindeer (or caribou)
(also called tuttu by the Greenlandic Inuit and rensdyr or rener by Danes) are the only deer species in which both sexes have antlers. Greenland animals can vary considerably in size, with females weighing up to 90 kg (198 lb) and the males (“bulls”) 150 kg (331 lb). Other species of reindeer can be larger or smaller. In Greenland both sexes may be hunted. Although they have antlers, they rarely use them against humans, even when backed into a corner by the Sami people who herd, milk, and slaughter them for food in other lands. Their usual defense against humans is to pull away or flee, often uphill. Males use their antlers when sparring against each other, and reindeer may use them as a last resort to defend themselves and their young against predators such as wolves, although wolves present no threat in southwestern Greenland. Although rarely aggressive toward humans, when in rut bulls will defend their harems from other bulls, and when humans come between a bull and his harem, attacks have been recorded.
Tame reindeer are known to be curious, but even wild reindeer can be curious in some situations. The wild reindeer is a shy animal and it reacts very quickly to sudden sounds or movements as well as the smell of strangers. In spite of this, inexperienced animals may even approach quite closely to a hunter and curiously observe while the hunter is field dressing a downed animal. They have good hearing and a good sense of smell, but have poor eyesight. They may react to a hunter’s movements, but not necessarily to his form if he doesn’t move. Under the right conditions, a stealthy hunter may be able to approach surprisingly close to a reindeer, even when the hunter is in full sight of the animal. Many animals are shot at relatively close range (10–50 meters).
Three subspecies of reindeer live in western Greenland where some interbreeding has occurred: The most common variety of reindeer in Greenland is the native wild barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus), which is a medium-sized race of reindeer also found in Canada.
The second type are the feral semi-domestic reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus), brought from Norway in 1952. They are larger and were first introduced at a game reserve in the Kapisillit region of Godthåb’s fjord. Their care was the responsibility of Sami herders who also controlled their harvesting and the meat preparation in a now-abandoned slaughterhouse at Itinnera. “Later animals from Kapisillit were released at several more locations to establish feral populations, which might support a hunting harvest. There is evidence for genetic mixing of native caribou and feral reindeer at some of the locations where reindeer were released.” The Isortoq Reindeer Station received Norwegian Reindeer from the Itinnera breeding stock in 1973 and located a 2000 head herd on a 1500 km square concession area. The company has its own abattoir and processing plant and annually exports meat to the EU and N. America.
A third type of reindeer may possibly belong to the Peary caribou subspecies (Rangifer tarandus pearyi). They are smaller and fewer in number and live in northwestern Greenland.
Reindeer hunting in Greenland is of great importance to the Kalaallit (Greenland Inuit) and sporting hunters, both residents and tourists. Reindeer (caribou) are an important source of meat, and harvesting them has always played an important role in the history, culture, and traditions of the Greenland Inuit. Controlled hunting is important for the welfare of reindeer, the quality of life for Inuit, and the preservation of tundra grazing areas. Therefore, scientific research is regularly performed to determine the quotas needed to maintain a proper ecological balance. Reindeer hunting is a multifaceted and challenging experience involving potential risks as well as personal rewards.
The Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus), also known as the white fox, polar fox, or snow fox, is a small fox native to the Arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere and common throughout the Arctic tundra biome. It is well adapted to living in cold environments. It has a deep thick fur which is brown in summer and white in winter. Its body length ranges from 46 to 68 cm (18 to 27 in), with a generally rounded body shape to minimize the escape of body heat.
The Arctic fox preys on any small creatures such as: lemmings, voles, ringed seal pups, fish, waterfowl, and seabirds. It also eats carrion, berries, seaweed, insects, and other small invertebrates. Arctic foxes form monogamous pairs during the breeding season and they stay together to raise their young in complex underground dens. Occasionally, other family members may assist in raising their young.
The Arctic fox lives in some of the most frigid extremes on the planet but does not start to shiver until the temperature drops to −70 °C (−94 °F). Among its adaptations for survival in the cold is its dense, multilayered pelage, which provides excellent insulation, a system of countercurrent heat exchange in the circulation within the paws to retain core temperature, and a good supply of body fat. The fox has a low surface area to volume ratio, as evidenced by its generally compact body shape, short muzzle and legs, and short, thick ears. Since less of its surface area is exposed to the Arctic cold, less heat escapes from its body. Its paws have fur on the soles for additional insulation and to help it walk on ice. Its fur changes color with the seasons: in most populations it is white in the winter to blend in with snow, while in the summer it is greyish-brown or darker brown. In some populations, however, it is a steely bluish-gray in the winter and a paler bluish-gray in summer. The fur of the Arctic fox provides the best insulation of any mammal. The Arctic fox has such keen hearing, it can determine exactly where a small animal is moving under the snow. When it has located its prey, it pounces and punches through the snow to catch its victim.
The Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus), or polar rabbit, is a species of hare which is highly adapted to living in the Arctic tundra, and other icy biomes. The Arctic hare survives with shortened ears and limbs, a small nose, fat that makes up 20% of its body, and a thick coat of fur. It usually digs holes in the ground or under snow to keep warm and sleep. Arctic hares look like rabbits but have shorter ears, are taller when standing, and, unlike rabbits, can thrive in extreme cold. They can travel together with many other hares, sometimes huddling with dozens or more, but are usually found alone, taking, in some cases, more than one partner. The Arctic hare can run up to 60 kilometres per hour (40 mph).
Known predators of the Arctic hare are the Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus), red fox (Vulpes vulpes), gray wolf (Canis lupus), Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis), ermine (Mustela erminea), snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus), gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus), rough-legged hawk (Buteo lagopus), and humans (Homo sapiens).
The Arctic wolf is probably the most successful predator of the Arctic hare, and even young wolves in their first autumn can catch adult hares. Arctic foxes and ermines, which are smaller, typically prey on young hares. Gyrfalcon carry hares to their nests, cutting them in half first; gyrfalcons use hare bones and feet in the structure of their nests on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. Peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) also prey on Arctic hares in the southern end of the hares’ range. The Snowy owls mainly targets young hare; the French common name of the species derives from Anglo-Saxon harfang (“hare-catcher”)
Range and habitat
The Arctic hare is distributed over the northernmost regions of Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands and Northern Canada, including Ellesmere Island, and further south in Labrador and Newfoundland. The Arctic hare is well-adapted to the conditions found in the tundras, plateaus and treeless coasts of this region, including cold weather and frozen precipitation. The Arctic hare may be found at elevations between 0 (sea level) and 900 m.
In Newfoundland and southern Labrador, the Arctic hare changes its coat colour, moulting and growing new fur, from brown or grey in the summer to white in the winter, like some other Arctic animals including ermine and ptarmigan, enabling it to remain camouflaged as their environments change.However, the Arctic hares in the far north of Canada, where summer is very short, remain white all year round.
The Arctic hare is one of the largest living lagomorphs. On average, this species measures from 43 to 70 cm (17 to 28 in) long, not counting a tail length of 4.5–10 cm (1.8–3.9 in). The body mass of this species is typically between 2.5–5.5 kg (6–12 lb), though large individuals can weigh up to 7 kg (15 lb).
The Arctic hare is a herbivore, and specifically a folivore. Arctic hares feed primarily on woody plants, and willow constitutes 95 percent of their diet year-round. Arctic hares predominantly consume such as saxifrage, crowberry, and dwarf willow, but can also eat a variety of other foods, including lichens and mosses, blooms, other species’ leaves, twigs and roots, mountain sorrel and macroalgae (seaweed). Arctic hare diets are more diverse in summer, but still primarily consists of willow, dryas and grasses. Arctic hare have been reported to occasionally eat meat, including fish and the stomach contents of eviscerated caribou. They eat snow to get water.
Female hares can have up to eight baby hares called leverets. The leverets stay within the mother’s home range until they are old enough to survive on their own.
There is little information on the lifespan of Arctic hare. Some anecdotal evidence suggests they live three to five years in the wild. Arctic hare do not survive well in captivity, living only a year and a half at most
Northern collared lemming
The northern collared lemming or Nearctic collared lemming (Dicrostonyx groenlandicus), sometimes called the Peary Land collared lemming in Canada, is a small North American lemming. At one time, it was considered to be a subspecies of the Arctic lemming (Dicrostonyx torquatus). Some sources believe several other species of collared lemmings found in North America are actually subspecies of D. groenlandicus.
It has a short chunky body covered with thick grey fur with a thin black stripe along its back and light grey underparts. It has small ears, short legs and a very short tail. It has a pale brown collar across its chest. In winter, its fur turns white (believed to be the only rodent to do so), and it has large digging claws on its front feet. It is 14 cm long with a 1.5 cm tail and weighs about 40 g.
This animal is found in the tundra of northern Canada, Alaska and Greenland. It feeds on grasses, sedges and other green vegetation in summer, and twigs of willow, aspen and birches in winter. Predators include snowy owls, gulls, wolverines, the Arctic fox and the polar bear.
Female lemmings have two or three litters of four to eight young in a year. The young are born in a nest in an underground burrow or concealed in vegetation.
It is active year-round, day and night. It makes runways through the surface vegetation and also digs underground burrows above the permafrost. It burrows under the snow in winter. Lemming populations go through a three- or four-year cycle of boom and bust. When their population peaks, lemmings disperse from overcrowded areas.