Arctic Ice Map

The Hairy Muskox

The muskox (known as Oomingmak meaning ‘the animal with skin like a beard’) is definitely a relic of the last ice age. There have been muskoxen in the Arctic for over 7,000 years and its ancestors originated on the tundras of north-central Asia about one million years before that. The woolly mammoth, the large-horned bison and the small horse all became extinct and only the muskox has survived. Muskoxen do not live in the extreme northern temperatures as they would starve, and only inhabit the areas where the tundras can provide something to eat; they must migrate south as the colder weathers approach. The muskox has a peculiar beauty all of its own. To me it is very reminiscent of the equally hairy yak, particularly the ones I have encountered in Bhutan in the Himalayas, although they are more closely related to the takin which is another very odd-looking, furry Bhutanese creature.

When a herd of muskoxen is challenged the adults retreat into a defensive ring against their attackers, like the wagons circling against an Indian attack in the Wild West. They usually move somewhat slowly, as a way of conserving heat and energy in the winter and possibly to avoid overheating in the summer. When necessary they can run and climb with tremendous agility. If forced to defend or attack they will head charge and it’s better not to be in their way. It is estimated that a head-on charge is equivalent to a car driving into a wall at 27 km/h. In case you ever need to know this, one tip, a muskox prepares to charge by lowering its head down and pressing its nose against its knee, to release a musky-smelling liquid from a gland near its nose. But don’t waste time smelling, start running fast. You are within a great wilderness and as such may roam free but always remember the muskox may charge.

Arctic Ice Map Photo Gallery

The multi-layered fur coat, between seven and ten centimetres thick, though coarse and stiff on the outside includes an ultra-soft undercoat called qiviut which is shed in summer. This fleece is lighter, warmer and rarer than the finest wools. The fur covers the whole of their bodies including the udders, which is possibly why they mostly breed only one calf every other year. Their horns are broad and flattened close to the skull. Boss is the name given to the muskox horn.

The muskoxen tend to eat from the valley floors, where the snow cover is relatively thick, rather than on the windswept slopes where the grasses may be already exposed. This is because at the valley floor the vegetation is lusher and more nutritious. They either use their noses to push aside soft snow or work with paw and chin to break through the thicker ice crust. They will move from area to area, to find new eating grounds, as if they know instinctively that they must not over-use any particular place. They eat a wide variety of plants and grasses but have a particular liking for willow that tends to grow near rivers, which is why they are often sighted near water. The muskoxen don’t however, merely contend with attack or adversity they seem positively to thrive on it. In winter and sub-zero conditions, faced with the prospect of starvation rations, they respond by immediately reducing their food intake and demands. It’s a Zen-like discipline. If there is less to eat the answer is to eat less. They can reprogram their digestive systems to receive the maximum benefit from every mouthful of food. They reduce their bodily activities to conserve energy. Their liver and kidneys can reduce in weight almost by half. Within Zen, oxen of whatever kind have always had a symbolic place in many illustrations, usually drawn in a series to the important Zen number of ten. They illustrate stories that show the way that life unfolds explaining that people and animals are symbiotic. They reveal the concept of the infinite, explaining that nothing can ever reach to the end and therefore no one can know it. The sky is often painted azure, a colour that is reflective of the pure and clear mind.

Muskox cows can produce a calf annually but often several years can go by without any calves being born. This is usually a direct result of their sensitivity to the harsh environment. It is certainly appealing to understand these shaggy, woolly giants are, underneath all that outer, massive covering, sensitive creatures. They are also playful animals. It’s again rather nice to accept that, even living in these very tough conditions, the adults as well as the calves play just for the pleasure of it. It has been established that the pregnant cows at the end of the winter still have high percentages of bone marrow fat which again illustrates their adaptation to the Arctic winters.

Muskoxen are prime survivors, given half a chance, but they can’t fight off the over-zealous hunter and that’s why they need protection and kills must be limited. They have already been wiped out in this region once and have only survived by re-stocking from Greenland. However, they are still right at the edge of survival. Otherwise they could go the way of the American bison. Unfortunately some people now think that’s just a place to wash their hands.

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