Although its scientific name
literally means "musky sheep-ox," the
muskox more closely resembles cattle and is more
closely related to sheep and goats than other
oxen. The common name is quite appropriate,
however, as rutting bulls do emit a strong musky
odor that can be smelled up to 100 yards away.
A muskox bull can stand 4.5
feet at the shoulder, which has a slight hump, be
8 feet long, and weigh over 800 pounds; cows are
slightly smaller. Both sexes have pale yellow
horns that are joined at the base and then grow
sideways, downwards, and backwars until the tips
are level with the bases, but those of males are
much heavier than females' and the base is much
more pronounced. The muskox has short, sturdy
legs and broad hooves.
The muskox's dense woolly
undercoat is impervious to dampness and cold.
That coat is coverered by a shaggy dark-brown
mantle of long guard hairs that often brushes the
ground. Those two coats allow muskox to survive
in the arctic tundra, where winter temperatures
can average -70º F and winter storms can last
for several day. The back is marked by a
lighter colored patch of brown or cream where the
guard hairs are shorter. Older adult muskoxen
sometimes develop a large mane of fur that sits
on the shoulders.
The muskox is native to the arctic tundra of
Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, and has been
introduced into Russia, Svalbard, Norway, and
Siberia. Some herds have also found their own way
from Norway into Sweden.
Contrary to many species, the musk ox migrates
from sheltered, moist lowlands in the summer to
higher, barren plateaus in winter. The primary
reason for this is food, as the exposed plateaus
do not accumulate snow due to the high winds,
making food easier to find. The distance
traveled between summer and winter areas
generally does not exceed 48 miles.
Habits and Behaviors
Muskoxen live in herds as small as 5 animals
during the summer, and may join with other small
groups to form herds as large as 60 individuals
in the winter. These larger groups help provide
protection from both the elements and predators.
Most herds average between 10 and 20 animals.
Social hierarchy in the herd is based upon
dominance. Dominance among males is typically
determined during the breeding season, and
sometimes throughout the year through headbutting
and chasing, as well as grunting and bellows.
Among females, dominance is determined by age and
size, with the larger, older females typically
exerting dominance over younger, smaller, females
through pushing, shoving, and chasing. Calves are
generally lowest in the hierarchy, although they
determine dominance amongst themselves through
chasing, mounting, and play. Generally, the
higher the dominance status of the muskox, the
better its food supply and breeding rights.
capable of running as fast as 25 miles per hour,
muskoxen do not run from danger. They prefer
instead to "face down" intruders and
predators by forming a tight circle of bulls
around the cows and calves and lunging en masse
at the intruder. Such displays tend to dissuade
all but the most persistent predators.
Calves, when communicating with cows or each
other, bleat, the pitch of which lowers with
maturity. Adults have deeper voices that sound
closer to roars and rumbles that can be heard
long distances. Adults also grunt and snort at
each other, at calves, and at other animals.
Pushing and shoving, as well as chasing and
stomping, are used to communicate dominance.
During the rut, bulls fight for
possession of the herds by ramming each other
head-on with such force that the impacts can be
heard over a mile away. The bulls' heavy horns
and "base plates" prevent injury during
the battle, which will continue until one of the
males backs down. Males that compete for
dominance are typically between the ages of 6 and
8 years old, as older bulls are usually not
strong enough, and younger males are typically
not large enough, to compete. Defeated males tend
to stay away from the main herd during the
remainder of the breeding season, but often
rejoin once the rut is over. Dominant bulls can become so protective of their cows that
they will even chase away birds that get too
Mating takes place in August
and September and a single calf is born the
following April or May. The precocious calf has a
thick woolly coat and can follow its mother at an
hour old and begins nibbling on plants at about a
week. It will continue to nurse for up to a year,
however, and will stay close to its mother until
at least 18 months of age. Cows mature at 1-4
years, depending on body condition. They only calve every other year,
unless the calf is lost in its early months.
Bulls mature at 3-4 years. Musk ox can live 20
years or more.
Muskoxen are generalized grazers. In the
summer months, the diet includes grasses, leafy
plants, sedges, mosses, shrubs, herbs, and
generally any vegetation available. In the winter
months, the diet changes to willow, dwarf birch
stems, roots, mosses, lichen, and any vegetation
they can locate under or above the snow.
genus & species Ovibus moschatus
Animal Diversity Web http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Ovibos_moschatus/
Ultimate Ungulate http://www.ultimateungulate.com/artiodactyla/ovibos_moschatus.html
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