The musk ox is a large herbivore. Even if the name says otherwise, it is more related to goats than to cattle. In the language of the Inuit, they are called “Umimmaq”. Translated, this means something like “animal with fur like a beard”. That’s what they look like.
The males can grow up to one meter and fifty centimeters. The females are slightly smaller and more delicate at a meter and a foot. Both males and females have upturned horns. The females also have smaller horns. A male is called a bull, a female is a cow. A young animal is a calf. Today, musk oxen live mainly in Greenland, Canada, and Alaska, i.e. in the far north.
They used to live in other areas, but humans have wiped them out there. In some areas, they have been resettled. Today there are again about 170,000 musk oxen in the world.
During the Ice Age, the ancestors of today’s musk oxen even lived in Europe. After the ice age, however, they disappeared more and more because musk oxen adapted to a cold climate. They eat whatever plants they find there. These can be mosses, lichens, and grasses.
How do musk oxen live?
In winter, musk oxen use their hooves to dig up plants from the snow. They are well adapted to the cold with different layers of fur and a thick layer of fat. Musk oxen have a thick undercoat that keeps them warm. Above that, they have a layer of dense coarse protective hair. It’s like putting a jacket or coat over a sweater.
However, the fur does not hold water very well. That is why many animals die in wet years because they then freeze to death. It is also common for musk oxen to starve to death.
Due to the thick fur, the animals look much larger than they actually are. The hair is dyed dark brown, but it fades over the year. Some animals are also lighter colored throughout the year. The hump of fat is conspicuous in musk oxen.
Like many ungulates, musk oxen travel in herds. These are smaller in summer. In winter, however, a hundred animals can be out and about together. They don’t usually hike long distances.
The strongest bull is the leader of the herd. He has priority over food and keeps his females together. He routs his rivals with stomping, roaring, and charging with his head down. When that’s not enough, the bulls fight, galloping toward each other with their heads down, their thick skulls banging against each other.
So that not much happens to the cops, they have a kind of air gap between their skull and brain. This cushions the impact like an airbag. But it also happens very rarely that a bull dies in such a fight. These fights take place from August to October when the males fight over the females to mate and breed with them.
After a gestation period of seven to nine months, a small calf is usually born. After just a few hours, it can roam around with the others. At birth, the calf weighs ten to fourteen kilograms. It takes about five years until it is fully grown: then a bull weighs about 300 to 400 kilograms. Cows weigh 200 to 300 kilos. Calves are suckled for 15 months, but after a week they eat some grass.
Musk oxen are always with their herd members. You do many things at the same time. They also like to charge shoulder to shoulder-when fleeing. This makes it harder for their enemies to kill a single musk ox.
If the herd is encircled, the older animals stand in a circle or semicircle with dangerous horns on the outside and take the young animals in the middle. Sometimes an animal will charge out of the defensive perimeter and try to put enemies to flight. The enemies can be bears or wolves.
Unfortunately, the muskoxen’s tactics do not protect against humans who hunt them with firearms. Thus, many musk oxen were killed and in some places became extinct. Due to the protection of the animals and resettlement, there are quite a few of them again.