Natural History of the Musk Ox

The musk ox, Ovibos moschatus, is an ancient species of arctic mammal currently found in remote areas of the far north, including Greenland, Alaska, Canada and Siberia. During the Pleistocene, musk oxen wandered across the Bering Land Bridge to populate North America with the likes of the wooly mammoth, saber-toothed cat, and giant ground sloth. Fossil records indicate the musk ox ranged as far south as France and Ohio during the last Ice Age. The largest wild populations of musk oxen can be found in Canada, especially on Banks and Victoria Islands, Northwest Territory. Musk oxen died off within Alaska by the late 1800's and were reintroduced from wild herds in eatern Greenland in the 1930's. Once in danger of disappearing completely, musk ox populations have made a dramatic comeback with a current worldwide population of about 150,000 animals.

Despite their common name, musk oxen have no musk glands and are not oxen. Although they may resemble bison, musk ox are more closely related to goats and sheep. This arctic ungulate, like domestic cattle, has a four-chambered stomach and eats a wide variety of foods such as lichens, grasses, and leaves.

Phyla: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Suborder: Ruminata
Family: Bovidae
Subfamily: Caprinae
Tribe: Ovibovini
Genus: Ovibos
Species: moschatus

Photo by Muskox Farm Staff

There are two commonly recognized subspecies of musk ox: Ovibos moschatus moschatus (Barren Ground musk ox) and O. moschatus wardi (Greenland or 'white face' musk ox). An adult Barren Ground bull stands about six feet tall at the shoulder and weighs up to 1000 lbs. The smaller Greenland musk ox bull stands four and a half to five feet tall at the shoulder and weighs up to 800 lbs. Cows are smaller than bulls in both subspecies. The two subspecies can interbreed successfully, as we have done at the Musk Ox Farm to help maintain the genetic diversity of our herd.

Adaptations:

The musk ox has adapted well to the harsh conditions in the Arctic. Over the course of their 600,000 year long history, musk oxen have developed some very interesting ways to stay warm and protected during the long cold winter months. The most significant adaptation against the frigid temperatures of their natural environment is a layer of extremely fine under-wool grown every fall. A layer of this qiviut (pronounced KIV-EE-UTE) can protect the animals from temperatures down to 100 degrees F below zero. The wool is eight times warmer than sheep's wool by weight and is hand-knitted by Alaskan natives into some of the most luxurious garments in the world. Qiviut is shed naturally by the animals each spring and collected on the Musk Ox Farm by combing. Five to seven pounds of this rare fiber is collected from each animal every year. The qiviut is then shipped to Oomingmak, Musk Ox Producers' Cooperative (www.qiviut.com) as the raw material for a thriving native cottage industry.

Both cows and bulls have horn with pointed curving tips. For the bulls, thick and well developed bosses serve to protect their skull during the head smashing that occurs during dominance fights and fall rut. The horn boss can be up to four inches thick and as much as a foot wide on adult males. The curving, scimitar-like horns on both the males and the females serve as a deadly defense against predators. When a herd of musk ox is attacked in the wild by wolves, the adults will form a defensive circle by aligning themselves side by side with their impressive horns and heavily muscled necks facing out and their vulnerable behinds and the young calves protected inside of the ring.

Breeding:

At the end of the summer, bulls on the farm enter the fall rut in preparation for the breeding season. Heightened aggressiveness and impressive dominance displays characterize bulls in rut. The famous charging head smashing occurs during this time of year between males vying for breeding privileges. The bone jarring collisions between these massive animals are a much-anticipated event. Two males will engage in a ritualized display designed to intimidate each other, including pawing at the ground, walking stiff-legged, and aggressively swinging their massive horns. Following the displays, the bulls will face-off and back up 100 feet or so before charging together at speeds close to 35 miles per hour. The head smashing may continue for up to a dozen times before one bull quits and submits to the other.

Several separate harems are formed in the fall. Each harem consists of one bull and a selected group of cows. Breeding lines are chosen to promote qiviut production, tameness, health, and to avoid inbreeding. Following six weeks in harem, the cows are moved to a separate pasture and monitored throughout their eight month gestation. Calves are born anytime from midApril to early May, and may weigh between eighteen and twenty-five pounds. They are born with a full coat of qiviut and a boundless supply of energy. The calves are the main attraction on opening day at the farm (Mother's Day), when they go on display for hundreds of visitors to see for the very first time.

Download a great movie of "Garth", a 5 year old bull (1.8Mb, 28 sec. Windows AVI file).
"Thanks" to Real Image for the file.




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All photos © 1998 Musk Ox Development Corporation