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Musk oxen are so named because of the male’s distinctive odor, or musky smell, so it’s no surprise that they’re more closely related to goats than oxen.
Musk oxen gather in herds of 10 to 20, though they’ve been seen in groups of 400 plus. They graze on the tundra and in wet river valleys, but in the winter they head for higher ground where the wind blows the snow off and the dig to food isn’t so daunting. Musk oxen eat grasses, reeds, sedges and other ground plants.
These animals are big at around 2.5 kg (8 feet) long, 1.4 m (4.6 feet) tall, and anywhere from 200 to 400 kg (440-880 lbs), though they’re not nearly as tall or heavy as moose. Both males and females have long curved horns, large flat foreheads, and massive shoulders that contribute to their prehistoric look. Musk oxen have been around for a long time. Their ancestors lived during the Pleistocene era, when wooly mammoths also roamed the ice.
Musk oxen have long, matted hair that is windproof and waterproof and covers a soft, downy undercoat – an adaptation to extreme cold that the Inuit would probably like to patent. Instead, these people harvest and covet musk oxen “wool” to make quality yarn. Musk oxen coats are a black-gray-brown combo with guard hairs that nearly touch the ground. This results in a series of bad hair days during molting season.
In the winter, herds include everybody – bulls, cows and calves. During the mating season, which peaks in August, this changes. Bulls compete for the females, when the toughest bull drives off the other males. The non-breeding males usually travel in groups of 10 or fewer, and they sometimes wander the tundra by themselves. The lack of female company doesn’t help their attitudes – they charge and attack anything that comes within striking distance.
Female musk oxen are ready to breed and raise young at two years old, while the males aren’t mature until five years old. Eight to nine months after breeding, from April through the summer, females drop their single calf. It’s a long-term commitment for the mothers.
The calves nurse for a year, though they will add grass to their diets at one week old. If predators like wolves threaten their young, the entire herd of bulls and cows form a circle around the calves and face out toward their enemy.
Unfortunately, this huddle technique proves to be an unsuccessful defense against their human predators.
Musk oxen were native to the northern regions, including the Canadian Arctic, Greenland and Alaska. Human hunting for musk oxen meat, hides and horns nearly exterminated the species from the Arctic in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Musk oxen staged a come-back when they became protected from hunting. They were reintroduced to Alaska, and were introduced to northern Europe, Norway, and Russia.
While their mammoth contemporaries are now extinct, musk oxen are thought to have survived the last ice age by hiding out in ice-free areas far away from their prehistoric human predators. Hopefully, musk oxen will survive this next global trend with the help of man.