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Meet the Muskox, Greenland's Gentle Giant

6 min read

When we think of Greenland, a formidable, rocky, and barren span inhospitable to life comes to mind. However, it is far from that! Greenland’s pristine Arctic wilderness is rich with wildlife, both land and water-borne.

Passengers on our 15-day Essential Greenland: Southern Coasts and Disko Bay expedition have a unique opportunity to view animals few will ever see outside of a zoo in their natural habitat, including Greenland’s largest land mammal, the musk ox.

Facts About the Musk Ox

Musk Ox at Arctic Watch. Photo credit: Thomas Schafenacker

Musk oxen are hoofed mammals that are more closely related to sheep and goats than to other oxen.

They stand four to five feet (1.1 to 1.5 m) high at the shoulder, and some males weigh up to 900 pounds (410 kg). Females weigh less than males, and the average weight of a musk ox is a hefty 630 pounds (285 kg).

Both male and female musk oxen sport long, curved horns, a shaggy coat of extremely thick hair, and impressive trailing beards.

In fact, the Greenlandic name for musk ox is “Umimmak,” meaning “the long-bearded one.”

A remnant of the last ice age, musk oxen once lived widely across the Arctic but are now confined to smaller territories in Greenland and Arctic Canada.

Meet the Musk Ox, a Gentle Arctic Giant


Musk oxen sport thick, shaggy coats of black, dark brown, and gray outer hairs (“guard hairs”) that conceal a dense, woolly under-layer.

This layer closest to their skin keeps the musk ox warm and insulates them from the worst that Arctic winters can deliver. Temperatures in this extreme northern clime can dive to a bitterly cold minus 40 C for days on end!

With its woolen under-armor of thick fur, estimated to possess insulating power six times that of a sheep, musk oxen are able to endure the frigid temperatures and harsh climate of the Arctic tundra. Come spring, musk oxen shed this undercoat.

Musk Ox Social Behavior and Breeding Season

Search for Arctic animals like muskoxen on guided hikes on the tundra.

Spring also ushers in the birthing of a single calf by a musk ox mother, between April and June. In a matter of hours, newborn calves are keeping up with the herd as it grazes on spring’s lush banquet of seasonal wild flowers, grasses, and other vegetation. In the winter months, musk oxen eat a diet of mosses, lichens, woody plants, and roots.

Within two months, calves join their elders in eating the tundra’s vegetation, only nursing occasionally. This weaning process coincides with the rutting season (mating season), which begins in late June or early July.

The rutting season is dramatic. Young bulls challenge the established dominant male musk oxen in hopes of usurping their elders’ reign over estrous cows. Bulls fight by lowering their heads and charging their sharp horns into each other, much like rams.

This violent clashing continues until either the dominant or subordinate bull concedes defeat. Such “bachelor” and elderly bulls sometimes will form their own herds, or live solitarily.

When their original herd is threatened, though, they will rush in to help defend it. Both bulls and cows are quick to protect their young by forming a horn-pronged circle around them, stomping, swinging their heads, and bellowing or snorting.

Come fall and winter months, the turbulence has given way to a relative calm. Dominant bulls have established their respective “harems” of six or seven cows and their calves, and herds have reunited.

Musk oxen live in herds of up to 36, but you’re most likely to see anywhere from 8 to 24 individuals. If you happen to get close enough so they perceive you as a threat, you may well witness them “circling the wagons” in defense of their calves!

As with all wildlife, we recommend that visitors keep a healthy distance. This is where your photo equipment will come in handy!

Musk Ox Predators and Threats

In Canada’s Far North, massive Baffin Island and the nearby uninhabited Monumental Island are excellent places to spot a polar bear on the prowl.

Over hunting has led to population decline within the species, but musk oxen are protected from hunting in Greenland National Park, which contributes to their relative abundance there.

However, the young, weak, and elderly are still susceptible to natural predators – namely climate fluctuation, Arctic wolves, and Polar bears.

That being said, their conservation status is noted as least concern by the IUCN, and they are often raised as domestic cattle.

Magical Fjords and Northern Lights: What are some things you'll see on an expedition to Greenland?


Our Greenland Adventure: Explore by Sea, Land and Air expedition takes you to a place untouched, where you can experience the raw and majestic splendor of the Arctic.

Meet the Wildlife of the Arctic

An excursion to East Greenland during the height of the Aurora Borealis’ otherworldly northern lights show will take you on a journey through the Denmark Strait, a preferred feeding area. Here you’ll be greeted by a host of seabirds and may spy orca, fin, humpback, Minke, and blue whales.

This passage is followed by four days of exploration in Greenland National Park. The world’s largest and most remote national park, it offers breathtaking views of Greenland’s wilderness and is home to a number of the Arctic’s wildlife denizens – notably musk oxen.

Explore Fjords, Glaciers, and River Valleys

Fjords like Scoresbysund are a spectacular sight for Greenland visitors.

After hiking about Greenland National Park, you’ll once again come aboard ship and cruise to Scoresbysund, where you’ll be awestruck by the world’s largest fjord system.

For the adventurous, the steep, narrow fjords of Scoresbysund can be closely explored by sea kayak or zodiac. Its towering mountainsides and enormous glaciers will positively mesmerize you!

Experience the Local Culture


At the beginning of the Scoresbysund sound, you’ll have the opportunity to visit East Greenland’s most northern town, Ittoqqortoormiit. An aboriginal village and hunting community of 450 Inuit people, you’ll be enthralled both by their warm welcoming and unique artisan crafts.

Ready to plan your adventure to Greenland? Call us to learn more about this active expedition!

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