Range and Habitat
Musk oxen are found on the Arctic tundra in areas of scant snowfall. They currently inhabit northern Canada, Alaska, and Greenland. Long ago they lived in Siberia and Europe.
The outer coat of a musk ox has dark brown, coarse guard hairs reaching nearly to the ground that shed rain and snow. The inner coat (qiviut) is fine, soft, light brown wool that provides a dense protection against cold and moisture. Front and under parts of the animal are dark brown to black; the legs are lighter. The body has a slight hump at the shoulder. The neck, legs, and tail are short. Horns are massive and broad, curving downward on the females and outward on males. Hooves are large and widely splayed, providing good footing as the animal moves across snowy ground and a valuable tool for pawing down through snow to reach vegetation.
Habits and Adaptations
Musk oxen are gregarious, forming herds up to 75 at times. An average herd size is 15. In summer and fall, some male-only groups form. When threatened, musk oxen form a defensive circle or line, placing themselves and their big horns between their calves and danger. Standing their ground rather than running protects them from other predators but makes them vulnerable to human hunters.
Eat and Be Eaten
Musk oxen are herbivores. Their main sources of sustenance are grasses, lichens, mosses, willow, and pine shoots. Wolves and bears are a main predator in the wild. Humans also eat musk oxen.
Musk oxen breed from August through October. Females give birth to a single calf the following May or June. They may not give birth every year if food is scarce and weather is harsh. Gestation is 8 months. At birth, the calf weighs 25–30 pounds and is 18 inches high. Calves mature at 3–4 years. Young bulls are driven out as they approach sexual maturity. They often form their own “bachelor” herds until they are older and strong enough to overpower a leader. Bulls give off a strong scent during rutting season, and are so aggressive they will even chase off birds that perch too near to cows. Musk oxen live to be about 20 years old. In addition to predation, they may die of starvation in severe winters or from drowning or wandering off the edges of cliffs.