28: Muskox

This week we will be doing another spotlight on an Arctic animal, helping an overlooked creature get a little bit of attention and praise. This time round it’s muskox, the giant furry cow-like creatures that wander the tundra of the north. We will have a little look at their history, behaviour and some of the problems they are facing today, though for a fun twist they are not actually in any way an endangered species! Well… depending on what the climate does… but for now they are happy!! Anyways, read on to find out more.

A Muskox, looking a little unsure of the photographer. Picture: Flickr/TVJ

The Basics

Muskox are ancient creatures, having roamed the earth for tens of thousands of years and having lived through the last ice age. They are big at around 1.2 m in height and males can weigh up to 400kg, twice that of the females. Despite their size and the ‘ox’ in their name, their closest relatives are actually sheep and goats rather than cows.

During the ice age muskox could be found around the globe, but as the ice receded, they became restricted to Canada, Greenland and the high Arctic islands. Since the 1930s some muskox have been introduced to Alaska, Siberia and Scandinavia by people, and populations survive today in these places.

Humans not to blame for all Ice Age mammals' demise ...
Muskox were around during the Pleistocene or ‘Ice Age’ at the same time as creatures like mammoths. Picture: George Teichmann/Yukon Government)

Adaptations

These animals were able to survive the extreme conditions of the ice age, and the still relatively extreme conditions in their homes today, because of their fine-tuned adaptations to their environment. Perhaps most obvious is their thick warm hair, which is made up of two layers. The long outer layer can reach up to 100cm in length, whilst underneath is a shorter thick woolly layer called qiviut. Having two layers of fur allows air to be trapped in between them, creating extra insulation. As the woolly qiviut layer is of such high quality, it is actually used as a wool by people, and spun in to a fine yarn similar to cashmere or guanaco. This layer of wool falls out when temperatures rise to help the muskox avoid over-heating.

Another adaptation is their large body size. Having a large dense body is useful in cold climates, as it means there is less surface area in comparison to the body size from which heat can be lost, just like when we are cold we may curl up in a ball, but if we are warm we try to increase our surface area by assuming the starfish position, losing more heat. Similarly elephants have large ears to increase their surface area and lose heat in their warm environments.

The muskox’s large body is also helpful in wintertime as a fat store. Muskox live off a diet of plants, but these plants can start to become pretty nutritionally poor and hard to find in winter time, so their fat reserves can help keep them going when times are tough food wise.

Qiviut | ferrebeekeeper
Qiviut is a quality wool used by some to knit, just like cashmere from goats or guanaco from the guanaco, a llama like animal in South America

Life and behaviour

Other than their luscious long locks, the other notable feature of a muskox is their big horns. Both males and females have them and they are partly used for defence. Muskox move around in herds and if attacked they will create a defensive ring around weaker members of the group, usually calves. This means that if the predator, this being either bears or wolves, tries to attack them they are blocked by a wall of horns on all sides. This is quite an effective defence mechanism against bears and wolves, but unfortunately less so against people. As a defensive ring is often done instead of running away, this made it easier for people to shoot muskox from a safe distance and in the late 1800s high levels of hunting severely reduced their number. Luckily today they are protected in Alaska, Norway and Siberia, so their numbers have bounced back and despite there not being many muskox (around 150,000 worldwide), their populations are stable.

Aside from defence, their horns are also used by males in the rutting season to compete for females. They use them to charge at one another at speeds of up to 50 km per hour. This is often done repeatedly until one male gives up, leaving the winner to mate with all the eligible females in the herd. During the rut males also secrete a very strong odour, the cologne of the muskox world shall we say, to attract females. This odour is, well, rather musky in smell, which is where their name comes from!

In terms of life pattern, summer is usually spent in the lowlands where there is plenty of rich food to allow the muskox to build up big fat reserves for the coming cold season. The herds tend to be very small at this time of year, perhaps just 5 muskox grazing together. During winter on the other hand they tend to move uphill, as this is where snow is thinner and so takes less energy to move through. Then their herds are much larger, perhaps up to 70 animals in a group, allowing them to have extra protection from each other against predators and the harsh weather.

Oomingmak - The Beared One - Musk Ox - The Canadian Nature ...
When they feel threatened muskox will for a defensive circle, often with vulnerable members like calves at the centre to protect them. Picture: Wayne Lynch

Climate

Sorry, despite their stable status in terms of populations, musk ox aren’t immune to climate issues. As explored in plog ‘A little bit about my research’ about issues affecting reindeer, climate change is causing unusual fluctuations in temperatures which can cause rain to fall in the middle of winter. When this rain comes into contact with the cold snow on the ground it freezes to ice. If this layer of ice is thick and strong enough, it prevents animals from breaking through it to dig to plants below, causing them to starve. This has been an issue for reindeer in recent years, but muskox too. In fact in 2003 in Canada, 20,000 muskox starved to death because of this type of rain-on-snow event.

Other strange climate effects include an ice tsunami in Alaska, in which violet stormy conditions cause over 50 muskox to be buried alive by snow and ice. These are sad incidents, and if they become more frequent there could be some concern for these giant ice age furry creatures. Luckily these freak weather conditions are still somewhat rare, so haven’t destabilised the muskox populations. For now they continue to graze and rut in all their musky glory along the tundra and mountains of the north.

For more info:

Music: kongano.com

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