Muskox (Ovibos moschatus)

Also known as: Musk ox
GenusOvibos (1)
SizeHead-body length: 190 - 230 cm (2)
Tail length: 9 - 10 cm (2)
Shoulder height: 120 - 151 cm (2)
Weight200 - 410 kg (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

A massive, stocky bovid, superficially resembling the American bison in appearance, the muskox has a large body, short, stout legs, a short tail, and a short neck, with a slight hump at the shoulders. The coat is dark brown to black, paler on the legs, face and back, and consists of a dense, soft inner coat, protected by dark, coarse, outer guard hairs, which can measure over 60 centimetres in length, and may reach nearly to the ground. Both the male and female muskox bear broad horns, which curve down and outward, and meet in the middle of the skull to form a large ‘boss’. The male is larger than the female, capable of reaching an impressive 650 kilograms in captivity, and has more massive horns (2) (3) (4) (5) (6).

The muskox may vary in size between northern and southern locations (3) (6), and a number of subspecies have been proposed (6). The common name of this species is said to come from a characteristic musky odour produced by the male during the mating season (rut) (2) (5), although others refute this (7).

Historically, the muskox occurred from Alaska, across northern Canada to Greenland, although the current range is somewhat reduced, and the species was exterminated in some areas during the last century (1) (2) (3) (4) (5). However, the muskox has now been reintroduced to Alaska and parts of Greenland, and populations have also been introduced to Russia, where it occurred until around 2,000 years ago, and to Norway and Svalbard, although on Svalbard it has since died out (1) (2) (4) (8).

The muskox is a characteristic species of the Arctic tundra. In summer, it tends to use sheltered, moist lowlands, such as river valleys and lakeshores, and in winter moves to higher slopes and plateaus, where high winds prevent the accumulation of deep snow, so making foraging easier (2) (3) (5).

The muskox is well adapted to the cold, and is one of the few large mammals capable of living year-round in the severe Arctic environment. The thick coat provides excellent insulation, and the short, stocky legs and large, rounded hooves help the muskox to move through snow (4), although it is not that well adapted to digging through heavy snow for food and so is generally restricted to areas with shallower snow (1) (3) (7). The diet consists mainly of grasses and sedges, as well as browse such as willow and crowberry, and some forbs. Predators include wolves and bears, and the muskox has a characteristic defence behaviour, in which the herd bunch together, often forming an impenetrable line or circle, with the calves inside and the adults’ sharp horns facing outwards (2) (4) (5) (6) (7).

A social species, the muskox typically forms mixed herds of around 10 to 20 animals, or sometimes as many as 100, although males can also be found alone or in separate bachelor herds. During the summer, smaller harem groups form, led by a dominant bull, with rival bulls excluded using threats, displays, or serious fights. Dominance battles are impressive contests, in which two rival males meet head-on after a high speed charge, often accompanied by roaring, and clash the horns together in an impact that can be heard a mile away (2) (5) (6) (7). Mating occurs between July and September, and a single calf is born between April and June, after a gestation period of around eight to nine months (2) (4) (5) (6) (7). Highly precocial, the calf is able to follow the female and join the herd within hours of birth, but may not be fully weaned for more than a year. Females reach sexual maturity at around 3 years and males at around 5 to 6 years, and individuals may live for up to 20 to 24 years (2) (4) (5). The muskox has a relatively low reproductive rate, the female giving birth only once every one to three years (2) (4).

The muskox has long been exploited for its meat, hide, horns and fur, and the extremely soft underfur, known as ‘qiviut’, is prized as one of the lightest and warmest wools in the world (1) (2) (4) (5) (6). However, the increasing presence of humans in the Arctic during the 19th and 20th Centuries led to overhunting, particularly as the species’ defence behaviour of clumping together makes it vulnerable to humans with firearms, and the muskox was consequently exterminated from parts of its range (1) (2) (4) (8). Fortunately, hunting regulations, natural recolonisation, and reintroduction of the species into its former range have resulted in a population recovery, and the muskox is not currently considered globally threatened (1) (4) (5). However, it is likely to come under increased threat in the future due to the combined impacts of global warming and increased human activity on its Arctic habitat (1) (7).

The muskox occurs in a number of protected areas across its range, and hunting is now regulated by quotas and permits, with preference usually given to local subsistence hunters. Reintroductions, undertaken in response to concerns over the species’ status, have generally been successful, and the return of the muskox to Alaska in the 1930s is considered an important conservation success story (1) (4) (7) (9). Further conservation measures proposed for the species include population monitoring, public education, and the development of long-term management plans (1). Suitable muskox habitat is believed to still be widespread, and it is hoped that, with proper management and public support, this hardy and iconic relic of the ice age will continue to make a comeback (7).

To find out more about the muskox and its conservation see:

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  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2009)
  2. Nowak, R.M. (1991) Walker's Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
  3. Macdonald, D.W. (2006) The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  4. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Muskox, (Ovibos moschatus) (November, 2009)
  5. Ultimate Ungulate (November, 2009)
  6. Lent, P.C. (1988) Ovibos moschatus. Mammalian Species, 302: 1-9. Available at:
  7. Alaska Department of Fish and Game: Muskox (November, 2009)
  8. Feldhamer, G.A., Thompson, B.C. and Chapman, J.A. (2003) Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management, and Conservation. Second Edition. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
  9. Shackleton, D.M. (1997) Wild Sheep and Goats and their Relatives: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan for Caprinae. IUCN/SSC Caprinae Specialist Group, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.