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Episode 196: Mesmerized by the Musk Ox

December 01, 2020

Musk-Ox (Male), Dry Bay Tundra, Near Kuujjuaq, Northern Quebec

We continue our holiday celebration with another winter wonderland creature, the Musk Ox. Survivors of the last Ice Age, and hunted out of most of their natural range, the Musk Ox is a survivor. This week we learn all about this hooved Arctic dweller and discuss just how they survive in their extreme environment.

Musk Ox History

The Musk Ox originated in Eurasia nearly 1 million years ago. Their ancestors lived in more temperate regions of the planet. However, as the planet cooled, evolution drove the Musk Ox to change and learn to survive in some of the harshest environments on our planet. The northern ice sheets pushed so far south, Musk Ox fossils have been found as far south as England, Spain, Italy. After their migration into North America about 200,000 years ago, Musk Ox fossils have been found as far south as Mexico.

While the Musk Ox is a member of the Bovidae family, they are not considered “bovids.” like cattle, bison or cape buffalo. Rather, they are part of the subfamily Caprinae. This is the family of sheep and goats. The Musk Ox is the only member of the genus Ovibos. They have a species name of Ovibos moschatus. There are two subspecies of Musk Ox and they are:

  • Ovibos moschatus moschatus (Barren Ground musk ox),
  • O. moschatus wardi (Greenland musk ox)

The Musk Ox historical range was Northern Europe, Northern Asia and North America. However, due to human pressures, by the 1800s Musk Ox had completely disappeared from Eurasia and Alaska. Today due to conservation efforts, Musk Ox have bene reintroduced to these areas.

Musk Ox Physiology

The female Musk Ox can live up to 20 years. Most male Musk Ox only live 10 to 12 years.

Musk Ox can be prey animals for wolves, which account for most of the mature Musk Ox killed in the wild. They also can be preyed upon by both polar bears and grizzle bears. However, the bears mainly go for the young, sick or injured. To escape predators Musk Ox can run up to 37 mph (60 kph). Yet, often to protect their young, Musk Ox exhibit cooperative behavior and will often form a circle with the young in the middle. Musk Ox also have been known to use their horns to hook a predator or trample them.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the Musk Ox is their coats. Their outer coats are made of long “guard hairs,” which can grow up to 23 in (60 cm) long. During the cooler months, Musk Ox grow a thick under coat of wool, or what is called “qiviut.” It is said this wool is much softer than sheeps wool and is even considered softer than cashmere (taken from goats). Musk Ox are kept by some and this qiviut is collected yearly by combing out the wool.

A video of this process can be seen HERE

The paper discussing Musk Ox hair and diet can be found HERE

Musk Ox Conservation

The Musk Ox is classified as Least Concern. Populations are estimated to range from 60,000 to over 100,000 animals.

Organization

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

 

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