Cool Critters
Featured Critters
Big Mammals
Medium Mammals
Small Mammals
Marine Mammals
Alaska Ecology Cards
Animals in the News
Fun and Games
Know Alaska
Get Active
Love the Arts
We're Cooking
Lit Kids
Native Cultures About

Home  >  Cool Critters  >  Featured Critters  >  Big Mammals
Musk Ox
Cool Critter Factoids
Latin Name: Ovibos moschatus
Habitat: The tundra of northern Alaska, Canada, Europe
and Greenland
Classification: Mammal, herbivore

Musk oxen have roamed the Earth's tundra for thousands of years, mostly likely since the last Ice Age, when they shared the land with prehistoric animals such as the mammoth. Scientists have found fossil evidence of the musk ox as far south as Ohio and France. Yet as the earth gradually became warmer, musk ox herds migrated north to occupy the lands they still survive in today. No other hoofed animal ranges as far north as the musk ox.

Walking Carpets
Musk oxen are wide, shaggy animals with short legs and long strands of dark brown fur. Full-grown oxen stand between 4 and 5 feet at the shoulders and can weigh between 600 and 800 pounds. Both bulls and cows have sharp, curved horns that begin at on their skulls at a thick plate of bone called a "boss." The boss is larger and thicker on bull musk oxen and serves to protect them when they smash heads and horns with rival oxen. The bulls have small glands underneath their eyes that secrete fluid they use to mark their territory. Musk oxen also have wide hooves with sharp edges that allow them to move quickly in snow.

Think about it: Compare a musk oxen's body to that of a moose. Which one is better adapted to eat tree branches? Which one feeds off the ground without effort?

Who needs a barber?
Alaska's Iñupiaq people call the musk ox oomingmak (OOH-ming-mack), which means "the bearded one." The musk ox's long, straggly fur might seem like a bad hair day, but no other animal is better suited for bitter cold and barren lands. In spite of their name, musk oxen are actually more closely related to sheep and goats. Beneath the long strands of fur, which can reach almost to the ground, musk oxen have an inner coat of soft wool that protects them in temperatures as low as 100° F. They shed their inner coat, called qiviut (KIV-ee-oot), every spring. This raw wool is gathered in the wild, or combed from animals in captivity, and used to make scarves and other winter garments. The fur is unlike any other material because of its remarkable ability to repel moisture and provide warmth.

Think about it: What makes qiviut so special?

Feeling kind of dizzy . . .
In spring and summer months, musk oxen usually gather in herds of 10 and 30 animals. They graze in moist, lowland areas where shrubs and plants are easily accessible food. Bull musk oxen compete with each other during mating season for the rights to cows and leadership of the herd. The bulls lower and swing their heads before backing up great distances and charging at each other at speeds as high as 30 miles per hour. Bull musk oxen bellow before charging, and will frequently punish each other on the head a dozen times before surrendering. The dominant bull musk ox gains control of the herd.

Think about it: Why don't musk oxen get brain damage?

Strength in Numbers
In the winter, musk ox herd migrate to highland plateaus where the cold is bitter but wind keeps large amounts of snow from forming on the plains. Food is frequently scarce and musk oxen sometimes resort to digging into the snow and frozen earth for moss and lichen. They huddle together to save warmth and survive mostly on stores of fat they have preserved from the plentiful food sources in the spring and summer. Thankfully, by the end of the fall, each musk ox has already grown a new layer of qiviut to keep them warm throughout the winter. Even so, some musk oxen still die of starvation.

Think about it: How do those sharp hooves help musk oxen find food in winter?

A Wall of Brown Fur and Horns
The musk ox has one natural predator: the arctic wolf. Occasionally, polar bears may attack oxen that have been injured or separated from the herd, but those attacks are rare. If a herd of musk oxen must protect itself, it is usually against wolves that will attack them fiercely. When attacked, bull musk oxen move to the outside of the herd and form a boundary surrounding the cows and young. With their sharp horns facing outward, they can form an intimidating defense against any wolf that might be bold enough to charge. From their position around the herd, the bulls can protect the cows and young by tossing and trampling any wolves that might attack.

Think about it: Where are musk oxen most vulnerable to predators?

Wait, that's cheating!
Unfortunately, this same defense habit is not nearly as effective against humans. In the 19th century, Alaska's musk ox population was completely wiped out by hunters with muskets. Because of their tendency to surround the herd and stand their ground, the musk oxen were easy targets for any hunter looking for food, hides, or a trophy. In fact, the bull musk oxen will even protect fallen members rather than desert the herd. Hunters marveled at these animals that would stand their ground rather than flee.

Think about it: Why do you think musk oxen don't run from humans?

Welcome Back

In the 1930s, scientists worked to reintroduce the musk ox into Alaska. They brought 34 Greenland musk oxen to the University of Alaska Fairbanks in an effort to begin a new herd. Since then, the musk oxen were protected and moved to Nunivak Island where scientists and ecologists have began the slow process of returning the herds to their natural habitats in Alaska. Today, musk oxen are no longer endangered and continue to survive in the tundra of Alaska and the northern world. You can visit captive animals in Fairbanks at the Large Animal Research Station at the University of Alaska, or in Southcentral, take a tour of the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer.

Think about it:
Can you think of other endangered Alaskan animals that could use some help?
Click for Fullsize
Image provided by Anchorage Daily News.

Click for Fullsize
Image provided by Anchorage Daily News.

Click for Fullsize
Image provided by BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc.

Click for Fullsize
Image provided by BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc.

Click for Fullsize
Image provided by BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc.

Click for Fullsize
Image provided by BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc.

Click for Fullsize

Previous Article     [ Back to Overview ]    
LitSite AlaskaKids is a program of LitSite Alaska
CONTACT     Read our privacy policy   
Copyright © 2000 - 2023. All rights reserved. University of Alaska Anchorage / UAA.
University of Alaska Anchorage