Musk ox

Profile

Musk oxen are large hairy mammals living in the Arctic. These animals actually have two types of hair. The guard hairs, which are the ones you can see, are extremely long, and they protect the musk ox from wind, rain, snow, and insects. The hairs underneath, called qiviut, is an insulating winter coat that starts growing in the fall and is shed in the spring. This works as insulation from the cold air.

Most of this animal’s hair is dark brown. On their backs, musk oxen have a lighter patch of hair, called the saddle. They also have horns which start together in the middle of the top of their head. They grow down along the side of the head, then curve up, ending in a point. Both the males and females have horns.

Musk oxen vary in size based on where they live. It is unknown what causes this, and some people suggest that there should be multiple subspecies of these animals. The name musk ox is thought to come from the musky odor males produce during the mating season, but some people do not agree with the origin.

Size

These mammals are huge. They can be as much as 7.5 feet (2.3 m) long, though they are normally closer to 6.9 feet (2.1 m). At the end of this huge body, they have a small 4-inch-long tail (10 cm) that is usually hidden in the long hair. This hair can be up to three feet (91 cm) long! At the shoulder, a musk ox can stand up to 5 feet (151 cm) tall!

The heaviest musk oxen can weigh about as much as the average horse, this being 900 pounds (410 kg). Most of they time they are a lot lighter, closer to 630 pounds (286 kg). Males are typically larger than the females.

Diet

Musk oxen are herbivores, but other than that they are not very picky about what they eat. Not that they can be very picky with the lack of variety of plants where they live. In the summer, they will consume grasses, moss, shrubs, flowers, fruit, and almost any leafy plants. During the winter, snow covers most of the ground, making food hard to find. At this time, they often eat roots and stems as well as more nutritious moss and lichen.

Habitat and range

As you can see in the range map below, musk oxen live almost exclusively inside the Arctic Circle, the circle that takes up most of the map. The red shows where these animals live naturally, and the blue is where they have been introduced. In case the weird view of the map threw you off, North America is on the bottom of the map and Russia is on the top. They live in multiple countries in the northern parts of three continents: North America, Asia, and Europe.

As you can probably guess from its range, this animal lives in a very cold habitat. They live north of the arctic tree line, meaning it is so cold in their habitat that trees can’t even grow! Summer is very short here, lasting at most four months. Even these four months of warmth aren’t very warm.

Status and threats

The musk ox is classified as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List. They have three known natural predators, these being polar bears, brown bears, and wolves. These are dangerous predators, but musk oxen have a unique way of protecting themselves.

When predators come, they will form their group into a large circle with the young in the middle. The adults stand guard around the edge with their horns pointing out. This creates an almost impenetrable line of defense. If the threat doesn’t give up soon enough, some of the largest adults may break rank and charge at the enemy, sometimes throwing it with their horns or trampling it. Individually, these creatures don’t have much of a protection, but they are much stronger together.

During the 1800s and 1900s, hunting was a big threat. Musk oxen were hunted then for their meat, skin, horns, and fur. Their defense tactic made them especially vulnerable to hunters with guns, as their large group gave hunters a large target. Hunting regulations have been enacted, so the threat from hunting has severely diminished.

Reproduction and young

Mating season for these animals occurs between July and September. Males fight for dominance in violent clashes. They charge at each other and crash their horns into each other, often bellowing in the process. These fights can sometimes be heard up to one mile (1.6 km) away! Males will repeat these charges up to twelve times before one of them gives up. These fights, though they seem extremely dangerous, are very rarely fatal.

After mating, the females go through an eight to nine month gestation period. A single calf is born between April and June. Within just a few hours, the young are able to join and keep up with the herd. At birth, they weigh about 22 pounds (10 kg), and they grow quickly, gaining a little over one pound (0.5 kg) per day. Despite this quick development, the calf may continue to drink its mother’s milk for an entire year. After three years for the females and about six for the males, the young are ready to reproduce. Females typically only give birth once every three years. Musk oxen can live up to 24 years.

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Sources:

Photo credits:

  • Musk ox – Public domain
  • Musk ox range – Wikipedia user: Gringer
  • Mystery animal – Wikipedia user: Danleo
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