Muskox

Meet the Alaska Zoo's muskox, a species which is a living relic of the Ice Age. Back to animal directory.

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LIFE SPAN: 22 years in captivity.

RANGE: Northern and western Alaska, often along coasts. Some herds are found in Interior forests east into Canada. An estimated 80% of the world’s muskoxen are in Canada.

SIZE: Bulls weigh 600-900 pounds. Cows weigh 400-500 pounds.

PHYSICAL FEATURES: 2 subspecies—Canadian (larger) and Greenland. Inupiaq word for muskox is “Oomingmak”, meaning “the bearded one”, refers to their long outer hair. Their inner wool, called qiviut (kiv-ee-oot), is the warmest natural fiber known. Muskox have features of sheep and goats, but are in a separate genus. Closest living relative is the Takin in the Himalayas. The muskox has changed little since the Ice Age, adapted for arctic life.  Both males and females have horns, with males having a thick horn “boss” (growth) on forehead.

FOOD: Herbivores, cannot dig through deep snow, so winter habitat is in areas of shallow snow. Feed on grasses, sedges, lichens, and woody plants.

BEHAVIOR: Males compete for breeding rights by ramming heads together until one gives up. Forehead skull plate (boss) is up to 8 inches thick. When threatened, adults form a circle with heads pointing out. Calves are in the middle for protection. Bulls charge one at a time, with circle closing behind.

CONSERVATION: Defensive circle works against wolves, but not humans. Alaskan muskox were hunted to extinction in early 1900’s.  All muskox seen today come from transplants brought from Greenland in 1930’s. Populations are stable, but low birth rates require close management of hunting by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

PLANT NOTES: Muskoxen are herbivores adapted to survive in areas that are barren for much of the year. They cannot dig through deep snow, so they rely on wind to uncover frozen plants and create shallow areas of snow for food access. They feed on grasses, sedges, lichens and woody plants when available. During summer months, they feed on fireweed and willow when available. Areas of “calcium-rich” tundra, typically found on the coastal plains, are important for muskox browsing. This tundra has less moss and shrubs, with more plant diversity.  As global temperatures rise, tundra is turning more acidic (wet). This has less nutritional value for muskox.