Muskoxen

Muskoxen on a snowcovered slope at Kangerlussuaq, West Greenland. Photo: Carsten Egevang
Muskoxen on a snowcovered slope at Kangerlussuaq, West Greenland. Photo: Carsten Egevang
Muskox with calf at Kangerlussuaq, West Greenland. Photo: Carsten Egevang.
Muskox with calf at Kangerlussuaq, West Greenland. Photo: Carsten Egevang.

Ovibos moschatus

The muskox is an ungulate belonging to the family Bovidae. As their Latin name implies they were thought to be a cross between sheep (Ovis) and cows (Bos). This is not correct though and the closest relative of the muskox is the goral - a goat-like species living in Asia.

Muskoxen have a shoulder height of up to 150cm. Full grown bulls can weight ca. 320kg while the adult females are slightly smaller (ca. 200kg).

The muskoxen belongs to the family Bovidae, hence they possess horns which by definition are permanent. Both sexes have horns and by their size and appearance you can classify the animals as calf, sub-adult or adult and differentiate the sex. The female horns are generally smaller in size compared to the male and they never grow together across the forehead. This is a distinctive feature for the males where the horn bases form a thick, dense forehead. During the mating season males often display head-butting for access to the females.When they clash heads it can be heard far away.

The muskoxen have excellent fur protection against the arctic winter. Their fur is 2-layered with thick inner wool (qiviut) and an outer fur of long dark guard hairs. The qiviut is shed during summer.

Food

The muskox is a generalist ruminant and their diet consist of a variety of grazes, sedges and fresh shoots from willow (Salix sp.). Their alimentary tract is adapted to this type forage which is difficult to digest. Compared to reindeer which are more specialized in their choice of diet the muskoxen have e.g., a longer digestive system. This results in a longer passage time which makes it possible to effectively digest the low-quality diet. But it also equals more time spent ruminating compared to reindeer.

Breeding

The mating season is from late August until early October. During the summer- and mating season the muskoxen live in "false" harems. The herds (5-10 animals) have one dominant male (+6 years) but he "allows" for younger sub-dominant males to stay within the herd. The females give birth to a calf (in rare occasions to twins) in April-May after a gestation period of approximately 9 months. In the past cows in the Kangerlussuaq area could give birth every year while the muskoxen in North- and Northeast Greenland usually give birth every second year. During winter time muskoxen tend to aggregate in larger groups e.g., 50-60 animals.

Distribution

Distribution of Muskox. Red colour indicates the distribution around 1900. Blue indicates areas with intrudced populations. Source: Wikimedia.
Distribution of Muskox. Red colour indicates the distribution around 1900. Blue indicates areas with intrudced populations. Source: Wikimedia.

Today, in addition to Greenland, wild muskoxen may be found in Canada, Russia and Norway. In Greenland the muskoxen are native to the north and northeast. Muskoxen were taken from NE Greenland and relocated on the west coast of Greenland at Kangerlussuaq (Søndre Strømfjord) in the 1960's. This population of introduced animals has grown and provided animals for introductions of muskoxen to several further locations in West Greenland.

Status

Today, the total number of muskoxen in Greenland is unknown. The most recent survey for muskox abundance in NE Greenland was ca. 20 years ago and estimated 9-13.000 animals. More is known, however, about the introduced population at Kangerlussuaq (Søndre Strømfjord). The initial 27 muskoxen introduced in the 1960's exhibited the fastest population growth rate in the world for about the first four decades. Rough estimates indicate a current population of 10-25.000. Less is known about the other introduced populations in West Greenland, although these also have shown good growth and quota based harvesting has been implemented.

Updated 04.14.2011