Animals of Greenland
Most visitors come to Greenland to experience the Inuit culture, the colourful houses, and the breathtaking natural beauty of mountains, glaciers, and enormous icebergs. However, the world’s largest island is also home to a surprising diversity of animals including the “King of the Arctic” the “Unicorn of the Sea”, the “Canary of the Sea”, and the “Sea Parrot”. Although we can’t guarantee sightings, guests on our Secret Atlas expedition micro cruises in Greenland have a good chance of spotting at least some of the animals of Greenland identified below, as our vessels are much less intrusive than larger boats and can get you closer to the action.
Called “Nanoq” in the Greenlandic language (Isbjørn or “ice bear” are also common names), the polar bear is the undisputed “King of the Arctic”. And although Greenland has a large population of polar bears, sighting one is not that common. This is because they mostly live on the drifting sea ice, only coming ashore when the ice thins or when the female is ready to give birth.
In Greenland, they are most commonly found in North and North-East Greenland, though they do surf the sea ice down the entire east coast to Nanortalik in South Greenland. They are very rarely spotted in other parts of South Greenland or along the west coast up to Upernavik.
Two subspecies of Arctic Fox (commonly called Polar Fox) are found in Greenland. The blue fox remains close to the coast and its fur retains its brown-grey-black colour throughout the year. The white fox prefers inland areas and changes its fur colour from brown and white in the summer to pure white in the winter. The winter coat is three times thicker than the summer coat and is one of the warmest furs in the world.
Arctic foxes are hunted in Greenland and, for this reason, they are generally quite shy of humans (the exceptions are in the protected North-East National Park). However, it is not uncommon to come across one while in the backcountry if you keep a sharp eye out and don’t make too much noise.
Greenland is one of only two places in the world where you can see the Arctic Hare. They are common throughout most of the country though are generally fairly shy of humans (again, they are hunted for their fur and meat). They cluster together during the winter months (in the north, you can see hundreds of them together), but are more commonly seen solo during the summer. They have a very insulating white coat with black ear tips and live on a vegetarian diet foraged from Greenland’s limited plant life.
Greenlandic Reindeer (Caribou)
This tundra subspecies of reindeer lives wild throughout western Greenland and is commonly spotted while hiking in the backcountry. Populations in West Greenland have recovered to around 100,000 animals after dropping to an alarming degree in the 1970s due to climate, overgrazing and hunting. Unfortunately, the east Greenlandic reindeer has been extinct since 1899.
Both males and females have antlers, though the male’s are generally much larger and more elaborate. Male reindeer are also significantly larger and heavier than females, though both are an important food source for Greenlanders who hunt them during the August-September season.
They may look like bison, but musk oxen are more closely related to sheep or goats. Given their enormous size, it is always a surprise to find them up the most incredible mountains, and you are often left wondering how on Earth they got up there! The largest population of musk oxen is spread throughout North and North-East Greenland, though most visitors encounter them near Kangerlussuaq in West Greenland. 27 beasts were relocated here during the 1960s, and have subsequently thrived in the area’s grassy plains. Although musk oxen are not dangerous, it is wise not to get too close as they can charge if they feel cornered.
One of the ways musk oxen stay warm in Greenland’s cold climate is through an extremely dense underlayer of wool called “qiviut”. It is one of the warmest wools in the world and the basis for some of Greenland’s most popular souvenirs. Yes, items made from musk ox wool are very expensive. But this reflects the difficulty in separating these fine fibres from the rest of the coat before spinning it and ultimately knitting the final product.
Humpback Whales are very common in Greenlandic waters between April and November. The movement of the glaciers and icebergs across the land and seabed enriches the waters with nutrients, which in turn sustains enormous numbers of krill and small fish – the primary food for Humpbacks. The result is that they are often found in the fjords and very close to land, making a sighting almost certain during summer.
Humpbacks are renowned for their complex songs and playful leaps into the air. They are also quite predictable in their diving patterns which makes photographing the unique markings on each individual’s tail fluke much easier.
During the winter, they travel more than 6,000km to the Caribbean to give birth, before returning once more to feed and frolic in Greenlandic waters.
Fin Whales are the second largest animals in the world behind Blue Whales. They are long, slender whales with a powerful blow and a small dorsal fin located far down their back toward their tail. Unlike Humpbacks, they rarely show their tail before diving, and can stay under for up to 20 minutes!
One of the smaller whales, Minkes are “only” around 10m long and have a distinctive pointy snout. But what they lack in size, they make up for in curiosity and it is not unusual for them to approach a stationary boat to check out what is happening.
They are most commonly spotted between May and October in the fjords and along the coast of wouth and west Greenland as far north as Disko Bay. However, they are a little unpredictable and have shown up almost everywhere around Greenland at every time of year at some point.
The only baleen whale endemic to the Arctic, Bowhead Whales are named for their massive, triangular skull which they use to break through sea ice. Also called Greenland Whales, they are the only baleen whale to winter in Greenland and can be spotted in East Greenland, and from Sisimiut to Qaanaaq in the west. They are particularly common in Disko Bay from January to May.
Bowhead Whales are remarkable animals, having the largest mouth (almost 1/3 the length of its body) and thickest blubber anywhere in the animal kingdom. With a lifespan of up to 200 years, they are thought to be one of the longest-lived mammals, and also they also have the longest baleen plates out of all baleen whales.
With its completely white body (well, once it reaches 7 years old), the Beluga Whale is easy to distinguish from all other whales that frequent Greenlandic waters. It has a flexible, bulbous forehead that allows it to make different facial expressions by blowing air around its sinuses and is also very talkative! It is nicknamed “the canary of the sea” thanks to the high-pitched clicks, whistles, chirps and squeals it produces when chattering with others.
One of the toothed whales, Belugas are highly social mammals that are usually seen in pods ranging from a few individuals to hundreds of whales. They are quite common along the west coast of Greenland from Maniitsoq to Qaanaaq, and their numbers have now started to recover after the introduction of hunting regulations.
The Narwhal is another toothed whale and closely related to the Beluga. The defining feature of a male Narwhal is the 2-3m long twisted tusk that emerges from its head and has earned it the nickname “unicorn of the sea”. The tusk is actually an elongated canine tooth that scientists believe is primarily a sexual trait designed to attract females – much like the feathers of a peacock.
Even during summer, Narwhals are not the easiest whales to spot in Greenland as they are limited to the northwest and along the east coast. During winter, they migrate into the sea between Canada and western Greenland for five months and live under the sea ice. They follow the cracks in the ice during this period so that they can breathe.
This iconic, tusked relative of seals is not that common in Greenland. There are ~5,000 animals thought to live in the area and these are only found along the coast of North-East Greenland, near Qaanaaq in the northwest, and off-shore in central west Greenland during winter.
Walrus have a very thick layer of blubber and skin to keep them warm and they feed mainly on mussels and other sea-bottom dwelling creatures. Quite surprising given their fierce countenance! They are enormous animals, with males weighing up to 2 tonnes and measuring more than 3 metres.
The Harp Seal (also known as the Greenland Seal) is common everywhere in Greenlandic waters (except for the far north) from around May – November. Most of them return to Newfoundland during the winter to give birth, though some do remain near Greenland.
The adults are distinguished from other seals by their black head and the black horseshoe-shaped (harp-shaped) markings on their silver-grey coat. However, when they are born, their coat is almost pure white for the first few weeks. Harp seals are of vital importance to the Inuit hunters of Greenland and the annual catch is considered sustainable.
The Ringed Seal is the smallest of the seal species that live in Greenlandic waters. They are the best adapted to live through Arctic winters and can be distinguished from other species by their small head and the ring-like markings on their back.
Although they are common along all of the coasts, they can be difficult to spot as they are commonly hunted by humans and other animals of Greenland. Despite this, the population is considered stable and the ancient Inuit tradition of hunting this seal for its meat and fur, sustainable.
The Hooded Seal is a large, greyish seal with dark spots. Mature males also have a striking red bladder on their head which they inflate into a “ball” whenever they get excited. They are superb swimmers and dive deeper than any other seal species, allowing them to dine on redfish, halibut, and squid.
Hooded Seals are generally only spotted in the southwest of Greenland and in some parts of the east, as they tend to stay offshore when heading further north. They are also important to Inuit hunters and not endangered.
The largest bird in Greenland, the White-tailed Eagle (”Nattoralik” in the Greenlandic language) is found primarily along the southwest coast and can have a wingspan of up to 2.5m. Its diet consists of Arctic Char, Cod, gulls, eider ducks, Arctic Foxes and Arctic Hares, though it is not above scavenging carrion. Although the species is distributed more widely (all the way to Kamchatka in Russia), Greenland’s White-tailed Eagles are the largest and have been protected since 1973.
Rock Ptarmigan (grouse) are very common throughout Greenland and have a neat trick of changing colour depending on the season. During summer, they are a speckled brown with dark stripes and blend perfectly with the tundra landscape. During winter, they are pure white and disappear into the snow. Although they are difficult to spot because of their camouflage, they are a popular eating bird for Greenlanders. They themselves feed mostly on seeds and insects.
The most northerly perching bird in the world, the Snow Bunting returns to Greenland each year around March to welcome back the spring with its chirping song, and breed during May-July. They look a little like sparrows and are extremely common throughout Greenland. The breeding males are predominantly white with some black on the back, wing-tips and central tail feathers. The females have a more grey-brown head and back. They feed mostly on seeds and insects.
The Greenland Wheatear is a subspecies of the more common Northern Wheatear that is found across Europe, Asia, and Canada. It is a relatively small (14-17cm) bird that has one of the longest migrations of any bird its size. During April-May, it migrates from sub-Saharan Africa to Greenland to breed, before returning to Africa around September to wait out the winter. Both the male and female have a white rump and tail, with a black inverted T-pattern at the end of the tail. They feed mostly on insects but will also consume berries.
Often mistaken for a gull, the Northern Fulmar is by far the most common coastal bird in Greenland. They generally have one of two plumages: a gull-like plumage with white on top and grey below, or sooty-grey all over with a pale patch on the upper wing. They have a pale, thick bill with an orange tip and are commonly found wheeling and arcing around fishing vessels and icebergs. They primarily feed on fish and shrimp and will dive into the ocean to reach their prey.
This medium-sized auk is the most widespread breeding bird in Greenland. During the mating season, both males and females are black with a large white patch on the wing and bright red feet. However, their plumage is quite different during the winter – with their head and underneath of their body turning white, their back a dappled black and white, and their legs a pale red. They breed in colonies often built into the sides of rocky cliffs and dive to feed on fish and crustaceans in shallow waters.
Commonly nicknamed the “Sea Parrot”, the Atlantic Puffin is another type of auk. It is easily recognised by its triangular red, yellow and grey beak, puffy cheeks, yellow feet, and white and black colouring. In Greenland, the puffin population was decimated in the early 1900s but has started a slow recovery since 1960 when egg collecting was banned. There are now found in a handful of places along the west coast of Greenland. Their diet consists almost entirely of fish and they are often famously photographed with beaks full of capelin.
The Common Eider is a large sea duck and the most widely distributed breeding bird in Greenland. The majority of the birds overwinter in Greenland (or the open water just west of the island) and breed on small islands where Arctic Foxes cannot reach them. The male has a white back and chest, a black belly and cap, and some of its neck feathers are olive green. The female is dappled brownish and is often found with the male. They mostly eat mussels, crustaceans, worms, and fish eggs.
Atlantic Salmon are the only salmon native to the North Atlantic ocean. They have a silvery colour that changes to dark bronze as they enter freshwater, and their diet consists mostly of fish, molluscs and crustaceans.
While they spend most of their life at sea, they migrate thousands of kilometres to spawn in freshwater rivers – typically the same river (even the same gravel bed) where they were born. This means that thousands of individuals converge on Greenland’s rivers at the same time, creating a very defined “salmon season” in the late summer and autumn. They are most commonly found from Uummannaq in the northwest to Tasiilaq in the east during this period.
Interestingly, scientists have identified a small population of salmon that are actually native to Greenland. These fish return to the Kapisillit river in the Nuuk Fjord to spawn every year.
Arctic Char are closely related to salmon but are actually a member of the trout family. They are found throughout Arctic waters and, like salmon, spend most of their time in the ocean before returning to freshwater rivers to spawn. While at sea, they are silver in colour. But once they enter freshwater, their belly and sides turn a reddish or golden colour, while their back becomes greenish. They are typically found in Greenland’s rivers during July – September, which is the peak Arctic Char fishing season. They mostly eat small fish, snails, and crustaceans.
Cod are an extremely common fish around Greenland. You are almost guaranteed to catch one every time you throw a line in. There are actually 3 types of cod found in Greenlandic waters – the Atlantic Cod, the Greenland Cod (smaller and often caught from land), and the Polar/Arctic Cod. Their colour is typically greenish or brownish with spots and they have a white line along the length of their body. They have 3 dorsal fins, 2 fins on their underside, and a narrow sensory “whisker” called a barbel near their mouth. They generally spend their time near the bottom of a body of water and eat fish, squid, and other bottom-dwelling animals.
As the name suggests, this fish is easily recognised because of its bright red body. It is a deep-sea fish living between 50 and 1000m and is often caught on long lines. Because it lives in cold waters, it grows very slowly and can live for many decades. Unusually, female redfish give birth to live young, rather than laying eggs, and redfish that end up around Greenland are typically born just southwest of Iceland. Their diet consists almost entirely of krill.
There are 3 types of wolffish in Greenland that are fairly accurately identified by their names: striped, spotted and blue. With their giant heads and impressive teeth, they may not be the most attractive creatures on the planet, but all except the blue do make for good eating. They live on the ocean floor in waters up to 500m, don’t move much, and use their powerful teeth to eat molluscs, crustaceans, and other hardshell seafood.
The Greenland Halibut is a flatfish with the left eye sitting on top of the head and the right eye below it. It is widely distributed throughout Greenlandic waters and is another bottom-dweller, living at depths of between 200 and 2,000 metres and feeding primarily on fish, shrimp, and octopus. It is most commonly caught on long-lines or with trawlers and is a very popular eating fish.
The capelin is a small, sleek fish with an olive-green back and silvery underside. They are very common around Greenland (and throughout the Arctic) and are an important food source for birds, predatory fish, seals, and smaller toothed whales. They are also a popular eating fish in Greenland and you will find dried capelin at almost any celebration. Unusually, capelins do not enter freshwater to spawn, but rather lay their eggs along the shoreline, including on gravel beaches.
The Greenland Shark is famous for being the oldest vertebrate in the world, with scientists estimating they could live up to 500 years. They are also one of the largest sharks, growing to 6m in length – even larger than a Great White! However, unlike other sharks, they tend to move very slowly and are found in colder, deeper waters down to around 2,200m. Their diet consists primarily of fish, but their stomachs have also been found to contain the remains of seabirds and terrestrial mammals that have likely fallen through the ice. Their meat is toxic to humans if not treated beforehand, and is rarely consumed. However, boiled and dried meat is fed to Greenlandic sled dogs if a shark is captured.
Insects and Spiders
Greenland has only 5 types of butterfly, with the Arctic Fritillary and the Northern Clouded Yellow Butterfly the most common.
The Arctic Fritillary is primarily found in mountain areas and has orange wings with black spots that scientists have shown to be shrinking in line with increasing temperatures caused by climate change. There is some concern as to what will happen to the butterflies if this trend continues.
The Northern Clouded Yellow Butterfly has a similar range to the Arctic Fritillary but is rare in southeast Greenland. Both sexes have a yellow-green underside to their wings and a bright orange-red dot on their hind wing. The male’s wings are yellow-orange on top and brighter than the female’s. Unlike many other butterflies, they fold their wings when settled, rather than stretching them out.
Both the Arctic Fritillary and the Northern Clouded Yellow Butterfly are most easily spotted from late June to August when they take flight to gather nectar and find a mate.
There are only two species of wild bee in Greenland, though there are several managed honeybee hives in the south (Greenlandic honey is spectacularly tasty)!
The Arctic Bumblebee has thick bands of yellow-orange and black-brown hair and is found throughout Greenland (though only at higher altitudes in the south). Like most other bees, each swarm has a female queen, males, and workers.
The Northern Bumblebee looks very similar but is actually a nest invader that takes advantage of the Arctic Bumblebee’s hard work. When a queen of this species find an Arctic Bumblebee nest, she kills the Arctic queen and lays her eggs in the hive for the workers to care for.
Of the two ladybirds found in Greenland, the Transverse Lady Beetle is the most widespread. Like many other ladybirds, it has bright orange-red wings with black markings and is commonly seen when hiking through low vegetation. It feeds mostly on aphids, scale insects, pollen and nectar.
The other beetle of note is Greenland’s largest – the aquatic diving beetle. They have a rounded, black body with hard wings and are widespread in lakes and tairns throughout most of Greenland. They are fearless predators, and often attack prey that is larger than themselves!
Greenland has around 70 spiders, with the Greenlandic thin-legged wolf spider the largest of them at just over 1cm. They have striped legs and a dark, hairy body, and are common everywhere except the north of Greenland. They don’t make webs, but rather paralyzes their prey on the ground.
If you are interested in seeing the animals of Greenland you can find out more about our Greenland small ship expeditions here.