Wild Profile: Meet the muskox

A male muskox standing in the snow By Fitawoman/Shutterstock

The muskox is one modern-day mammal that looks a little like it just stepped out of a prehistoric museum diorama. Its shaggy fur could rival a woolly mammoth’s! This is of course because muskoxen live most of their lives in Ice Age-like conditions on the Arctic tundra. So, -40°C temperatures, wind, and blowing snow? Not a problem.

Clothing made from muskox wool is really, really warm

A muskox’s coat is made up of two layers: a woolly layer, close to the skin, and an outer hairy layer. Muskoxen wool is eight times warmer than sheep’s wool but finer than cashmere. The outer layer of hair, meanwhile, is longer than any other North American mammal’s. It’s coarse, and protects the insulating wool layer. A muskox doesn’t keep all this fur year-round; in midsummer, it sheds the insulating undercoat.

A muskox is not an ox

Despite the name, these mammals are not oxen. And even though they look like a hairier version of a bison—humped shoulders, short legs—they’re actually most closely related to goats and sheep. Both male and female muskoxen grow horns. Their horns are very similar; a bull’s are thick, and almost fuse together in a solid mass on the forehead. Females have a patch of fur that separates each (skinnier) horn. But either way, the horns are razor sharp. Muskoxen use them in defence, and, along with their giant heads, to smash through crusty snow cover. Snowplow? What’s a snowplow?

What do they eat?

During winter, muskoxen roam about in mixed herds. In the high Arctic, temperatures stay below -18°C for about eight months of the year, and it’s mostly dark between November and February. But muskox don’t care! The only conditions these beasts consider disruptive are massive blizzards. In this situation, a muskox will lie down with its back to the wind, and wait it out. Muskoxen head into winter with generous fat stores to help sustain them through the cold. Beyond that, they’ll target low-lying valleys—the snow is usually less deep there—and dig down to get at willows, sedges, and grasses. They have an excellent sense of smell, powerful enough to sniff out the buried vegetation.

What’s their population in Canada? 

We have about 85,000 muskoxen. Not bad, given that they were once nearly extinct. They’ve been under government protection since 1917. (Even though they only have one predator—the wolf—human hunting didn’t do the population any favours.) And they’re certainly worth preserving: they’ve been around for a long time. Experts believe the muskox crossed over via the Bering Strait about 90,000 years ago.


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