Musk-Ox or Muskoxen of the Arctic
At first glance, the musk-ox resembles a bison. Bison are much heavier than the musk oxen and they are not related at all. Musk-ox (also spelled musk ox) or muskoxen are of the family Bovidae and the subfamily, Caprinae. They are more closely related to goats and sheep than to any oxen. Their scientific given name is Ovibos which is Latin meaning 'sheep-ox'.
These animals are known for the males' musky scent during mating season. This odor attracts the females. The dominant males have a harem of females. The subordinate males need to look out for their own safety as the dominant males in any group will challenge subordinates. The dominant male will give warning to the subordinate male before attacking by butting or kicking. The subordinate can put up a good fight and thereby change his own status to dominant male or he can leave. Most subordinate males when challenged, stick around to get really beat up and then when it's a matter of life or death, they limp away. A subordinate male who has left the herd can come back in times of danger – temporarily – for protection.
How do Muskoxen Protect Themselves and Each Other?
These are big, lumbering animals but they can reach a running speed of 37 miles per hour. If there is a lithe and almost-starved Arctic Fox chasing them, 37 miles per hour might not quite save each animal in the herd, so the muskoxen have a different defense. They stand in a defensive formation, a circle, each of them facing outward.
During the mating season, the dominant male bulls get to decide who gets to stand where in the defensive formation. During gestation, the females are in charge. When there are young calves, the bulls and cows will form either a semi-circle or a complete circle of bodies around the calves.
Defensive Formation of the Muskoxen
Stealthy Predator of the Musk-Ox
Predators of the Musk-Ox
The most common predator of the musk-ox is the Arctic Fox. The grizzly bear and the polar bear also will try to attack the weakest or the youngest of a musk-ox herd.
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Physical Description of the Muskoxen
The females and the males of this genus have long, curved horns. Both the females and the males stand approximately 4 to 5 feet tall at the shoulder (1.1 to .15m). The females average 4.4 to 6.6 feet in length (135 to 200 cm) while the males are usually 6.6 to 8.2 feet long (200 to 250 cm). The adults weigh, on average, about 650 lbs or 290 kg, but the musk-oxen kept in zoos usually have a higher average weight. Females and males each have a small tail – less than 4 inches long which is covered under a layer of thick, matted-looking fur. The fur coat is a blend of colors: black, gray and brown and include long 'guard hairs'.
Where Do Muskoxen Live?
Originally, the modern range of the muskoxen in North America was the Arctic areas of Canada and Alaska. There were also muskoxen in Greenland. The animals in Alaska were over-hunted and completely decimated by the early 1900s. Some scientists argue climate change may have been a factor, too. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service re-introduced the muskoxen to Alaska at Nunivak Island in 1935.
Muskoxen were living on or near Ellesmere Island. In 1967, 14 animals were captured near Eureka, Ellesmere Island and taken to northern Quebec to a wool farm in Kuujjuag. The animals were able to reproduce after their move but after a few years, the farm could not earn a profit. Therefore, 54 of the animals were released to three separate places in northern Quebec. There were also a few of the animals which were sent to zoos. The released animals increased from a number of 148 animals throughout the years to 1400 by the year 2003. There were also 112 adults and 25 calves counted on the nearby Diana Island in 2005. They had managed to get to the island by their own means. There have also been individual muskoxen seen on the Canadian island-province of Newfoundand and on the shores of Labrador.
There have been small populations of musk-ox introduced to Sweden, Siberia, Alaska and Norway.
Barrenlands of Northern Quebec, Canada
Details about the Cows (Female Musk-Ox) and their Calves
Pregnant cows aggressively decide where the herd will bed down for the night and how much distance they will cover each day. The males in the herd move along with the pregnant cows, frequently changing locations, finding nutritious food. If food cannot be found some years and winters are severe, the cows will 'not go into estrus and thus not calve the next year.'
Gestation period for the cows is eight to nine months. When a calf is born, he or she gets up and walks within a couple hours. Calves only on their feet for a couple hours can keep up with a herd on the move.
I See Love Here. Mama Muskox and her Calf.
Juvenile Musk-Ox at Nome, Alaska
Majority of Muskox Live on Banks Island in the Canadian Arctic.
In 2011, according to the Annual Report of Research and Monitoring in National Parks of the Arctic, the current world population of musk-oxen was counted as between 80,000 and 125,000. Of those, 68,788 were living on Banks Island. (See map below.)
On another land mass, Greenland, the muskoxen are safe and protected. They are at the Northeast Greenland National Park as well as three nature reserves where they receive full protection.
Location of Banks Island, Canada
A Closing Note
In the Arctic, including Northern Quebec, where most of the photographs in this article were shot, life is difficult for the muskoxen. You can see it in the eyes of these animals. Life is dangerous. Food isn't always available. Calves can die. Predators can appear suddenly. Dominant males can become ugly bullies. Weather can be brutally severe. And yet each animal has to persevere.
Within the Conservation Status statistics, these animals are labeled 'low concern'. Nonetheless, thanks to the wonders of technology and professional photography plus the generosity of Alan and Elaine Wilson who like to share their professional photographs, we each can feel a low, medium or high level of concern when we take a moment to peer into the eyes and souls of these mighty, yet vulnerable, mammals.
Muskoxen in Defense Formation
Except for the last two photos in the article, all photos were taken by Alan Wilson of British Columbia. Their website, naturespicsonline.com, specifies we may use their photographs. Also I have written permission of Alan Wilson.
Gunn, A. & Forchhammer, M. (2008). Ovibos moschatus. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved 31 March 2009. Database entry includes a brief justification of why this species is of least concern.
Lent, Peter C (1988). "Ovibos moschatus". Mammalian Species 302 (1–9)
Annual Report of Research and Monitoring in National Parks of the Western Arctic, Parks Canada. Pc.gc.ca. 2009-04-15. Retrieved 2011-03-03.
© 2015 Pamela Kinnaird W
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