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Musk Ox

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Last updated date: 22nd Jul 2024
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Introducing the Musk Ox

Musk ox, or scientifically known as Ovibos moschatus, and the plural form is musk oxen, is a shaggy-haired Arctic ruminant of the family Bovidae. The musk ox is a  stocky mammal with a large head, short neck, and short, stout legs. The name derives from their musky odour and superficial resemblance to the ox. Although they are not closely related to cattle. The musk ox is closely related to the mountain goat, chamois, as well as serow. They are placed in the Bovidae subfamily Caprinae, along with the true goats and the sheep. Yes, differentiating a musk ox from others of its kind is a tough job but, knowledge will let you understand them and their features for your better judgments! So, without any further adieu, let's learn it all about Musk Ox!!

All About Musk Ox

Bulls from Canada‘s southern Barren Ground stand about 135 cm or 53 inches at the shoulder and weigh about 340 kg or 750 pounds. Whereas the cows weigh about 250 kg or 550 pounds. Northern musk oxen are smaller as compared to those that live farther south. Horns are present in both sexes. The horns are 60 cm or 24 inches long in old males. The horns of the males have a broad base. It proceeds sideways from the midline of the skull, dip downward at the sides of the head, and then it is curved upward at the ends. 

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Females and young have a similar horn, but the difference is that they have smaller horns. The coat of musk ox is of long, dark brown hair that reaches nearly to their feet. Its hair conceals the short tail and almost covers the small ears. Their shorter hair covers the face. Underneath the shaggy coat is thick wool, which is called qiviut. The quivit is shed in summer and it is used by the Arctic craftsmen to make a fine yarn similar to the cashmere or the guanaco.

Muscat animal Alaska always travels in herds, generally of 20–30 individuals. They are not aggressive. When they have attacked the adults encircle the young. Then they present a formidable front of horns that is effective against their enemies. However, this defensive formation makes them very vulnerable to human hunters. Musk ox feeds on grasses, sedges, and willows. 

During summer they store large amounts of fat. This fat they use to supplement the meager forage winter. They are highly adapted for conserving energy in cold weather as they are found in cold regions. Muskoxen have a rutting season that lasts for two months in late summer, and a single calf is born after 244–252 days gestation. The fat of the female is used for the support of lactation for calves that are born before the grass and the low-growing plants are uncovered by the melting snow.

In the Pleistocene Epoch that occurred from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago, musk oxen or musk ox animals were circumpolar in distribution. However, after the end of the  Ice Ages, they were confined only to the parts of northern Canada, the high Arctic islands, and Greenland. In the late 19th century they were severely depleted by humans because of hunting. The Thelon Game Sanctuary, that has been established in 1927 in Canada’s Northwest Territories, was only established to save musk ox on the North American mainland. In 1935 and 1936, musk oxen were introduced on Nunivak Island, Alaska, and some of these musk oxen were later transplanted to Siberia and Scandinavia.

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Arctic North America to Greenland, native to the far north they are found in treeless tundra. During the 20th century, they were introduced to other areas around the Arctic where they had previously died out or have been hunted to extinction. Their Conservation status is of Least Concern.

How Do They Survive?

Muskoxen live in the tundra regions of the high arctic. They are grazing animals, which are very much related to the sheep and the goats than to oxen. Their Latin name Ovibos means "sheep-ox". The name ‘musk ox’ comes from the strong scent emitted by males in the breeding season, although it is not musk.

The species were widespread across the arctic in previous times but were wiped out in many places by hunting. Conservation measures have helped to reverse their decline as have re-introductions to places across northern Europe and Asia. Many of the populations are isolated but are vulnerable to disease and changes in climate. Their main predator is the arctic wolf that hunts them in packs, grizzly, and also polar bears may take juveniles or infirm older animals.

Muskoxen live in a small family. They live in extended groups in the summer of as few as 5 animals, but during the winter season, they may join other animals and form groups of 60 individuals. Larger groups help them with protection against predators and weather by standing closer. The musk ox is an animal of the far north region and lives its whole life above the northern tree line in the Arctic tundra. They can survive in some of the harshest places in the arctic. They have several anatomical, behavioural, as well as physiological adaptations that allow them to do this successfully.

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Musk Ox Adaptations


They move seasonally where it is the easiest to find foods. Muskoxen feed on grasses and also on seasonal wildflowers in the spring and summer months and spend in river valleys near to water. During the winter times, they move onto eating roots, mosses, lichens which they can access to the higher-up hillsides to avoid deep snow. They dig through ice and snow using their hooves to reach out to food. There might be more of these foods in the valleys in winter, but they are more difficult to access than on exposed hillsides and at higher elevations because the snow and ice covers are much thinner.

When attacked by predators, muscat animal Alaska try to run to nearby higher ground and then form a circle with their rumps together and horns facing outwards the predator. The calves stay close to their mothers' side and the adults take it in turns to rush out to attack the predators with sharp horns. This is a good strategy against animal predators but not against humans who can take advantage of this. The humans have the tendency to stand their ground to pick the musk oxen off with bows and spears.


Long, thick hair, the most obvious feature of a musk ox animal is its long shaggy coat. It gives them the appearance of being larger and more powerfully built than they are. Their coat consists of long outer guard hairs exactly like the cold hairy mammals. This provides direct protection against the weather and a shorter inner coat giving extra insulation. In the case of the musk ox animal, this inner coat that is called the qiviut grows in time for the winter months. It sheds at the end of the winter when it starts to get warmer again.  Qiviut is prized as one of the lightest warmest wools available from any animal. The outer hairs can be as long as 60cm or 24 inches.

Like many cold-climate animals, musk oxen are large. Being large makes it easier to maintain their body temperature when it is cold. Because there is less surface area to lose heat from compared to smaller animals. They also have short stocky legs and small furry ears, which help to reduce the surface area available for heat loss.

Hooves are made of keratin-like fingernails and hair. They are used to dig through the snow to reach food. It is a dead part of the body without any blood circulation to lose heat. Muskoxen have two weight-bearing toes. It spreads the weight making surer easier footing on soft or slippery surfaces. The thick layer of body fat is for insulation and food storage to help survive the winter when food supply may be irregular. Laying down a good fat layer in the summer means the difference between surviving the next winter or not.

The Bearded One

Musk ox animals or arctic muskox are called Oomingmak in the Inupiaq Eskimo language, which means “hairy one” or “bearded one,” due to the long, elegant shaggy fur that trails like a skirt along their flanks. The fur is dark brown with a creamy “saddle” across the back. It looks as if it were dusted with snow.

Musk ox animals are also remarkable for their horns that sweep down along the side of the face, then curve gracefully upward and outward to slender tips. The horns of the bull join as a big solid mass across the forehead. Cow horns are much smaller as compared with a fur patch between them on the forehead.

Herd Behavior

Muskoxen are herd animals. The groups of 2 or 3 dozen animals are sometimes led by a single female. When threatened, the herds use cooperation “circle the wagons”, array themselves with their young in the middle and their sharp horns facing outward towards their enemies. A cornered musk ox animal can be a fearsome foe, charging its massive bulk and attempting to use its horns to deadly effect. Such defenses are not effective against human hunters. Humans have killed great numbers of musk oxen for their hides and meat. Therefore to preserve them today, legislation protects herds in Alaska, Norway, and Siberia.

FAQs on Musk Ox

1. How to Feed an Ox and What is the Diet of Musk Ox?

Ans: They are herbivores and eat whatever plant material they can readily find. During the summer months, this is by preference soft nutritious grasses and other wild plants. Their feces are moist and high in nutrients at this time indicating that food is abundant enough that they do not need to try very hard to absorb all of the nutrition from it. Instead, they can take the easy to get at nutrients. Then go for more food rather than retaining food in the digestive system for a long time to fully digest it.

During the times of winter, they turn to roots, dwarf willow, and dwarf birch, lichens, mosses, and other vegetation they can access beneath the snow. At this time the fecal matter gets dried and has little nutritional value because of a slower process through the digestive system. This leads to a more thorough removal of nutrients itself that is a result of less plentiful and less nutritious food.

2. Write About the Breeding and Predators of Musk Ox.

Ans: Musk oxen are harem breeders. The males compete for dominance with the winner breeding with all females present in oestrus. Females usually give birth to a single calf every year or every two or even three years depending on the favourable feeding conditions. The young are born after an 8-month pregnancy. If twins are born it is uncommon and rarely has the capability to survive. The young are very well developed at birth being up and feeding within around 45 minutes. The young are able to follow their mother back to the herd a few hours later. The estimated world population of musk ox is around 150,000 worldwide, of which about 75% are in Canada.

Predators - Arctic wolves are the main predator. They may account for up to 50% of all mortality, grizzly bears and polar bears are occasional predators, mainly of calves and also infirm adults.

3. Write a Short Note on the Pleistocene Survivor of Musk Ox.

Ans: If one could step back to northern Alaska during the Pleistocene Ice Age, one would see wooly mammoths with long ivory tusks, shambling across the tundra, raising their trunks and trumpeting into the frigid dawn. One would also see giant steppe bison or saiga antelope or enormous short-faced bear weighing 1,900 pounds. And one would see muskoxen looking pretty much the way they do today.

In Gates of the Arctic National Park, an animal of the Pleistocene that wandered across the vast, grassy steppes of ice-age Alaska can still be seen. The ancestors of the musk ox animal or also known as arctic muskox crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Asia to North America 100,000 to 150,000 years ago. During the massive continental glaciations, these animals retreated to few areas that remained free of ice in northern Canada and Greenland.