Muskox

(Ovibos moschatus wardi)

Habitat and Distribution: Found in arctic prairies and tundra in Greenland and northern Canada; reintroduced to their former range along the arctic coast of Alaska in the 1960s.

Size: 5-7.5 feet long; 4-5 feet at shoulder; 400-800 pounds. Males are larger than females.

Wild Diet: Grasses, roots, bark, grains, nuts, flowers, lichen, fungus, willow, herbs, shrubs, and grasses.

Predators: Usually wolves; sometimes brown bears or polar bears.

Reproduction: Females generally produce one calf every other year, between April and June, after a gestation of 8-9 months. Newborn calves can stand and nurse within an hour, start eating vegetation within a few weeks, and depend on their mothers for warmth and food to survive their first winter. A calf follows its mother for about a year, sometimes hiding underneath her skirt of guard hair.

Behavior: Muskoxen are harem breeders: A bull gathers a group of cows, guards them from other males, breeds all the females in the group, then stays with them and protects the offspring. The bull establishes dominance over other males by posturing, roaring, fighting, and spreading his scent. Fights involve 10 or more head-to-head collisions until one bull gives up--although they may charge at speed of up to 25 mph, this behavior is rarely fatal. The harem system also gives muskoxen good defense against predators.

Conservation

IUCN Status: Least Concern

Muskoxen were exploited for meat and hide in the 19th and 20th centuries, but the Northwest Game Act of 1917 enacted conservation efforts allowing for their recovery. They are widely distributed and their large populations are stable, with an estimated total of 80,000 individuals in the wild.

Did you know?

  • Muskoxen have two-layered coats. Their soft underwool, called qiviut ("kiv-ee-ute"), is shed every spring. Qiviut is warmer than sheep’s wool and softer than cashmere.
  • When threatened, the herd forms a circle with heads facing outward and rumps and young animals protected in the center. This is the best defense against predation because they overheat quickly and can't outrun bears or wolves long enough to escape.