The muskox represents an almost bygone age of the prehistoric era. With its primordial appearance and amazing adaptations, this animal is a sight to behold. Read on to learn more about this magnificent creature!
1. They’re Named After Their Smell
The muskox is named after its musky scent emitted by males during the breeding season. Despite its name, they don’t produce musk; the odor is produced through a unique chemical produced by a special gland. This chemical is distributed throughout the fur of its abdomen through urination.
The breeding season of the muskox occurs during the summer. Typically, muskoxen live in herds based on a hierarchy determined by age, with older individuals being dominant over younger animals. During the breeding season, dominant bulls will form harems of females whom they will mate with. Bulls will also compete with others by ramming each other with their horns. The challengers will walk backward, lower their heads, and then proceed to charge straight ahead, clashing their horns against one another. This continues until the loser surrenders.
Though its skull sports air pockets that help provide cushioning for their heads during such powerful brawls, recent research suggests that muskoxen may suffer traumatic brain damage from these fights. However, some argue that the samples were obtained from older animals, meaning that the brain damage was instead from age-related reasons.
2. Muskoxen are Adapted to Harsh Conditions
The muskox can be found in northern Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Russia. To survive in subzero temperatures during the winter (sometimes reaching down up to -40 degrees Fahrenheit!), the muskox sports two thick layers of fur throughout its body, covering the animal almost entirely. The outer layer consists of guard hairs that protect the animals from wind, rain, and snow, along with pesky biting insects in the summer.
The inner woolly layer is much softer in texture and keeps the animal nice and warm. The muskox’s inner fur is known as qiviut, derived from the Inuit language. Its fleece is much warmer than sheep’s wool and is much more durable; due to this, it is highly prized. It can be used to make sweaters, hats, and scarves. Qiviut can be harvested by plucking or combing an animal currently shedding its winter coat. Shed wool can also be gathered out in the wild, as clumps can sometimes be found on nearby plants. Hunted animals provide another source of qiviut. Underneath the skin, the muskox is also protected by a thick layer of fat that further provides extra insulation.
To defend themselves from predators, such as Arctic wolves and bears, muskoxen form a defensive line or circle and face outwards. Calves huddle close to adults or hang inside the protective circles, and an adult may even occasionally charge at potential threats before retreating to their lines of defense.
3. They Survived the Ice Age Extinction
Muskoxen have survived two ice ages. While other animals, such as woolly mammoths and woolly rhinos, perished, the muskoxen have continued to live through the modern day. They were much more widespread during the Late Pleistocene when temperatures were much cooler for their liking. Muskoxen were among the many animals that thrived on mammoth steppes, which were once-widespread treeless grasslands that sported a variety of grasses, herbs, and shrubs.
When the Beringian land bridge formed from lower sea levels, muskoxen were among the many other animals that migrated into North America. It became regionally extinct in many parts of its former range but has since been reintroduced in a few areas, such as Norway. A few Norwegian herds even migrated to Sweden, slowly regaining a foothold back within their former Scandinavian range.
4. The Muskox is Related to Goats
Despite its name and buffalo-like appearance, the muskox isn’t a true ox at all. In fact, it is closer to goats and sheep; technically, it is known as a "goat-antelope". The muskox was once believed to be close cousins with another cow-like goat-antelope known as the takin; however, genetic evidence shows that its closest living relative is an animal called the goral and the serow. Both serows and gorals appear more typically goat-like.
The muskox once had close relatives that became extinct right after the last Ice Age. One such cousin is Bootherium, also known as the woodland muskox. Unlike its tundra-dwelling relative, this creature preferred grasslands and woodlands. Fossils of this ungulate have been found from Alaska to Texas. Unlike its relative, the woodland muskox was taller and leaner in build. Its skull was also thicker, and its horns were fused towards the center.
Another recently extinct cousin was Euceratherium, also known as the shrub-ox. It also differed from the muskox in both appearance and ecology. Its horns were longer, and like the woodland muskox, it was also taller. The shrub-ox preferred hillier landscapes, and its fossils have been found from the Southwestern United States to as east as Illinois. Unlike the grasses and sedges that muskoxen graze up, shrub-oxen browsed from trees or shrubs as their fossil dung has revealed.
5. Muskoxen Were Once Endangered
The muskox is not currently considered endangered today; however, it almost became extinct in the early 1900s mostly due to overhunting. It was prized for its meat and hide, so prized that it was eradicated throughout Eurasia and eventually Alaska. Fortunately, reintroduction programs and stricter hunting regulations have allowed muskox populations to slowly recover. Today, muskoxen can be hunted sustainably with a permit, and some people even farm the muskox for its qiviut.
Though not currently considered threatened, the muskox isn’t fully out of the woods yet. While some of its habitats are being degraded for mining and oil-drilling operations, the muskox's biggest threat is anthropogenic climate change. Muskoxen are losing their foraging grounds as temperatures increasingly rise, affecting the nutritional quality of the plants they eat. Warmer temperatures also put the muskox at higher risk of diseases and parasites. Fortunately, conservation organizations are further working to protect this magnificent animal from disappearing forever. A few zoos are preserving the muskox through breeding programs, and researchers are further studying this animal to learn more and further protect this creature from extinction.
You can help the muskox by raising awareness among your friends and family about this wonderful beast. You can also donate and support conservation organizations, such as the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center which are working hard to preserve this species’ future legacy.