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All About the Musk Ox

by Murray Lundberg

(Click on each of the graphics to greatly enlarge them)

Picture of a musk ox     "The bison of the tundra." That's what my impression was when I first saw a photo of a musk ox, and now, decades later, I still have a hard time shaking that idea about these fascinating Arctic residents.

    Musk oxen ("oxen" is the plural form of "ox") are members of the family Bovidae, as are antelope, gazelles, cattle, sheep, goats and bison. Their scientific name is Ovibos moschatus, Ovibos signifying that they have features in common with both ox and sheep, and moschatus relating to the musky odour that males in rut emit from preorbital (facial) glands.

    Adult bulls measure about 4 to 4½ feet (1.2 to 1.35 meters) tall at the shoulders, are about 6½ to 8 feet (2 to 2.4 meters) long, and weigh about 750-800 pounds (340-360 kilograms), while cows are somewhat smaller.

    A musk ox's main protection against the Arctic weather is a double coat of hair. The outer hair, hanging over their short legs almost to the ground in winter, is dark brown and very coarse, while the underwool, called qiviut ("kiv-ee-oot"), is various shades of light brown and gray. The qiviut is finer than cashmere, and is extremely valuable to Inuit knitters who make scarves, hats, vests and other items of clothing from it.

Picture of a musk ox     Although nomadic, musk oxen do not travel far, even between summer and winter ranges. They form small herds, usually a bull with several cows and their calves. Several of these family units may gather for short periods, forming herds of up to 100 animals. A herd that size, however, can seriously damage the sensitive tundra, and they soon split up again. In most areas, it takes 2-3 square kilometers of land to support a single musk ox.

    Males mature sexually at 4-5 years of age, females at 3-4 years. Late summer can be very dramatic as bulls fight for dominance and the right to breed with as many cows as possible. They charge each other at speeds up to 25 mph (40 kmh) while bellowing, and the collision between their massive horns can be hard for great distances. They may charge each other 20 times over the course of an hour before the winner is decided.

    Musk oxen have a gestation period of 8½ months, and a single calf is born between late April and early June. While twins are not unknown, they are very rare. The calves nurse until they are between 10 and 18 months old, then join the rest of the herd in their diet of grasses, sedges, lichen and the leaves of a wide range of bushes.

    Despite the difficulty of reaching the regions where musk oxen live, the species has suffered greatly from hunting by humans. When threatened, musk oxen form a circle with the bulls and cows facing outwards around the calves. With their massive horns (both sexes have horns) and thick coats, this is a fairly effective protection against wolves and the occasional polar bear, but makes them easy prey for humans with rifles. Peter Matthiessen states in Wildlife in America that in the early 1900s, "an estimated six hundred musk ox were killed for food by Admiral Peary's expeditions to the Arctic alone."

    In about 1865, the last musk ox in Alaska was killed near Wainwright. In 1930, a herd from Greenland was imported, eventually being moved to Nunivak Island, where they thrive today.

    Although considered threatened for many years, musk oxen recovered fairly quickly once a worldwide hunting ban was instituted, and the world population is now thought to be around 80,000. Limited hunting is currently allowed in some parts of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

    Below, you'll find links to a great deal more information about the musk ox, including more photos.

Musk Ox Links

The Arctic Wolf
All about Canis lupus arctos, the musk ox's main predator.

Musk oxen taxonomy may be changing - members of the order Artiodactyla (even-toed ungulates), some are now classifying them as Cetartiodactyla - "The Ultimate Ungulate Page" has an enormous amount of information on all members. Picture of a musk ox

Institute of Arctic Biology
Researchers at the Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station (LARS) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are studying musk ox and caribou.

Matthew Henson with a Baby Musk Ox
A photo, with a short description of Henson and Peary's experiences with musk oxen.

Musk Oxen in Alaska
A look at the extinction, reintroduction and subsequent successful expansion of the species in Alaska.

Musk Ox Farm
This research farm near Anchorage has a well-ilustrated site, which includes a 28-second video clip.

Muskox and Peary Caribou Dying
An excellent article by Ed Struzik examines the causes of the high mortality rates in parts of the Canadian Arctic.

Picture of a musk ox

Musk Ox Teeth
Researcher Poul Henrichsen introduces his findings of dental problems in musk ox in Greenland and Alaska.

Muskoxen in the American Midwest
A brief look at the two species of musk ox (Ovibos moschatus and Bootherium bombifrons) that inhabited the midwest during the last ice age.

Started in 1969, the Oomingmak Cooperative in Anchorage is now working with 250 Native Alaskan women to supply hand-knitted items made from the exquisite underwool from musk oxen.

Yukon Wildlife Preserve
Located near Whitehorse, this is a good place to view musk oxen year round.

References & Further Reading:

  • Peter Matthiessen - Oomingmak: The Expedition to the Musk Ox Island in the Bering Sea (Hastings House, 1967)
  • Peter Matthiessen - Wildlife in America (New York: Viking, 1995)
  • Helen Von Ammon and Erin Mauterer - Musk Ox Babies of the Far North (Doodlebug, 1997)

More Arctic & Northern Animals

A musk ox at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve in the winter
A musk ox at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve in the winter.