One look at herd of Musk Oxen, and you wonder if you’ve traveled
back in time to the Pleistocene, the age of Saber-toothed Tigers
and Woolly Mammoths. Reportedly, these venerable beasts have existed
since the last ice age, 600,000 years ago. With their distinctive
curved horns and shaggy long hair, this “Bison of the Tundra” roams
the arctic river valleys of North America, Greenland, and the northern
countries of Europe, grazing on grass, reeds, and sedges, using
its cloven feet to dig beneath the snow to reach lichen and nutritious
ground plants when necessary.
Musk Oxen, who are not oxen, and do not have a musk gland, most
likely got its names from the heavy scent that males give off when
excited. They are a member of the Bovidae family, and are closely
related to sheep and goats, although they best resemble buffalo
and bison. Like cattle, they have a four-chambered stomach and live
in herds of 10-20 animals. Sometimes several herds may join, forming
groups of up to a hundred. Herds will include bulls, cows, and calves
until mid-August when the bulls are in full rut. At this time, bulls
begin to exhibit heightened aggressiveness, making impressive displays
of themselves. Pawing at the ground, walking stiff-legged, and swinging
their massive horns, the bulls compete for dominance.
At a formidable 440 to 880 pounds, bulls stand 5 feet at the shoulder
and are 8 feet long. Challenges made at mating season are no light
affair. Facing off, challengers back up about a hundred feet apart
before charging, head on, at speeds approaching 35-45 miles per
hour. Bellowing, the bulls collide. Their massive horn bosses, which
can grow up to four inches thick and a foot wide, protect their
skulls, and challengers may repeat the activity a dozen times before
one bull submits and is run off. The winning bull will be the only
male allowed in the herd until mating season is over.
At two years old, cows are sexually mature. The gestation period
lasts 8 ½ months, and single calves, weighing 18-25 pounds, arrive
mid-April to early May. With soft curly hair, calves resemble their
parents, and may begin eating grass as soon as a week after birth,
although they will continue nursing for a year or more.
The arctic is a desperate region, but Musk Oxen are well-equipped.
In winter they grow thick undercoats of soft brown fleece and shaggy
overcoats. Guard hairs extend past their bulky shoulders and short
legs, almost dragging on the ground. This wool is finer than cashmere,
and eight times warmer for its weight than sheep’s wool. It can
protect the animal at temperatures down to 100 degrees Fahrenheit
below zero. Musk oxen shed their undercoats in May, leaving behind
them “The Golden Fleece of the Arctic”—great woolly powder puffs
anywhere between 4 and 16 pounds. Traditionally, Inuits have used
this fiber, which they call qivuit, in making garments.
Adult Musk Oxen protect their offspring in a way quite unlike
any other animal. When approached by a predator, calves quickly
gather in a tight circle, while the older members of the herd encompass
them, facing outward. If necessary adults may charge the threat;
but usually they remain stationary, using their muscular shoulders
and horns to block the provocateur from the more vulnerable members
of the herd. This course of action is effective against arctic wolves
and the occasional polar bear, but not against the firepower of
man. In the early 1900s Musk Oxen came close to extinction and were
completely wiped out by hunters in Alaska. However, thanks to a
worldwide hunting ban, populations have recovered. They were reintroduced
into Alaska in 1930, where they continue to thrive. The world population
is now estimated at 65,000-85,000. Their biggest threat now may
be the climate shift occuring in the north. Where temperatures drop
significantly a hard crust of ice may form over the ground which
is impossible for the Musk Oxen to break through. Without food,
herds may starve.
This appears to be the new challenge of preservation teams devoted
to caribou and Musk Oxen, the final surviving relic of a past age.
About the Author
Emma Snow has always adored wild animals. Emma provides content
for Wildlife Animals http://www.wildlife-animals.com
and Riding Stable http://www.riding-stable.com.