Large Wildlife of the Arctic: The Arctic Musk Ox, Walrus, and Polar Bear

When it comes to the Arctic, there is only one strategy for wildlife: go big or go home. That’s because in order to tolerate the extreme cold weather temperatures, Arctic mammals need more: more fur, more blubber, and larger body masses. Only the largest species take on the Arctic winters, and even those who boast large body frames often must huddle in groups or herds to further help them stay warm.

Of the species that do live in the far north of the Arctic, only about 12 of the 40 stay there year round, when the temperatures take a dip and the sky is filled with darkness 24 hours a day.

If you are planning an Arctic cruise, you may wonder which of these large, cold-bearing species you will run across. Three roaming land and marine mammals common to Arctic include the moose, the walrus, and the polar bear. All three of these species rely on their massive bodies and adapted features to hunt and survive in the Arctic.  




Though large in size, musk oxen have one trait that is just as likely to stimulate your senses: their odor.  The distinctive, musky smell of the male musk ox is actually where the mammal gets its name. The odor, mixed with their 8-foot length and 4.6-foot height makes these creatures hard to miss. They are also identified by their long, curved horns, flat foreheads, and massive shoulders, giving them an almost wooly mammoth-like, prehistoric appearance.

Musk oxen gather in herds of 10 to 20, though they’ve been seen in groups of 400 plus. Seemingly social, the musk oxen will herd with just about everyone in the winter--bulls, cows, and calves included--however, during mating season, breeding males will drive out other bulls while non-breeding males usually travel in groups of 10 or fewer, or even wander the tundra by themselves. When in search of food, the musk ox will graze on the tundra and in wet river valleys, moving to higher ground and using their horns to dig into the ground in the winter. 

Armed with a coat of long, matted fur atop a downy undercoat, the musk oxen are fairly wind and waterproof. This results in a series of bad hair days during molting season.




It’s not the extraordinary mass of the walrus that often catches the attention of Arctic cruisers first, but the loud bellowing and snorting of these marine animals! Often seen stretched out by the hundreds along the ice rim of the Arctic, the walrus is a loud, boisterous, social creature.

Most commonly identified by its massive tusk-like teeth, which can grow up to three-feet long, the word “walrus” actually means “tooth-walking sea horse.” It’s the walrus’s tusks that contribute to much of its ability to survive in the Arctic.  The walrus uses these tusks to pull the itself out of the water, to create breathing holes from below the ice, and to fight off other walruses during mating season.

Feeding off of more than 60 types of marine organisms (mollusks, shrimp, crab, coral, and sea cucumbers to name a few), the walrus can dive up to 260 feet deep and hold their breath of up to a half hour in search of food. They use the vibrissae, or bristle-like mustache, to identify prey under water, then suck the meat from shells with their powerful vacuum-like mouth and strong tongue.

Because of their size, there are only two natural predators to the walrus: the orca, and the polar bear.




If you cruise to the Arctic, you may be lucky enough to see the fuzzy, white polar bear in person. Though they live in isolation most of the year, you will likely find them roaming about during the spring, when they are mating. 

The polar bear, which arms itself against the cold with a layer of blubber-like fat, is able to retain its body heat during the most frigid of days. This blubber-like fat layer also helps the polar bear swim, making it a skillful and graceful marine predator. Add webbed toes to the polar bear’s low body density and you now have a marine predator that can swim up to 100 miles in a single stretch.

During the summer, the polar bear spends its days hunting in order to build up their fat layer, which will sustain them though the long Arctic winter (hibernation season). The layer of fat, plus the thick fur of the polar bear keep it warm year-round in the Arctic. Despite the freezing temperatures outside, the internal temperature of a polar bear hovers around a warm, 98 degrees.

Whether you are seeking wildlife of the moose, walrus, or polar bear type, the Arctic has it all. Inquire with Polar Cruises today and we can match you with an Arctic trip that matches your vacation interests.