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Musk Ox

three muskoxen


Musk Ox.  This hairy and stocky, short-legged mammal somehow just seems to fit with Alaska. Perhaps it's because they wildly inhabited circumpolar regions through the last Ice Age. After which, by the mid-19th century, they became extinct in Europe and Asia and were no longer to be found in Alaska by the early 20th century, primarily due to human hunting.  Luckily, they continued to roam freely in Greenland and the Canadian Arctic.

Baby Musk Ox

Baby muskox enjoying a willow twig

Musk Ox Horn
Musk ox skull

In 1930, a small group of thirty-four musk oxen were brought from Greenland to Fairbanks, Alaska, in an effort to bring back the population of these Arctic-friendly animals. In 1935, they were taken from Fairbanks to Nunivak Island located approximately 30 miles off the southwest coast of mainland Alaska. The surface of this volcanic island is mostly thin lava flows, permafrost and vast tundra. It's largest tree is the dwarf willow and since our hairy herbavores are quite partial to willow, they thrived on Nunivak and grew to a population of 750 by the year 1968.

musk ox

Adult muskox (2)

You might think that a musk ox must be an ox! Or that it looks more like a cow. However, due mostly to its sexual dimorphism, this member of the bovidae family is actually closer to goats and sheep (also of the subfamily Caprinae). The muskox head resembles that of a sheep head. Standing 4-5 ft tall at the shoulder and weighing ~ 600lbs on average, male and female muskox look mostly alike, with their greyish-dark brown hair and short white legs. But one way to distinguish one from the other is by their horns--the bulls horns are much larger. Musk ox aren't nearly as large as they seem--half of that size is their thick coat. Muskoxen share Alaska with their fellow bovids, the dall sheep, bison and mountain goats.

While our personal favorite cold-weather animal in the world is the sophisticated emporer penguin, the musk ox is quickly taking its sweet spot of second place in our hearts as we learn of their fascinating behavior. For example, as a defense against predators, one of which is wolves, the muskoxen line up in circles or semi circles with horns outward. The cows and calves are sandwiched closely between the bulls.

muskox heard

Defensive muskox herd (3)

The musk ox rut takes place at the end of June and into early July when they fight for control of a group of females and their babies, shoving the other bulls out. The bulls are in charge of the herd during this aggressive period before handing over the authority to the females while they are pregnant (8-9 months).

A bull muskox gets enjoyment from, well... 'bullying' the subordinate and juvenile males--many of which will often leave the herd and live in bachelor colonies or just wander off alone, defeated. During mating, the bull will kick the cow in order to get her to 'cooperate'.

When the bull is in rut, a glandular secretion with a strong musky odor  really gets the girls to take notice!  This musky smell is where the animal gets the name muskox (although its real name is 'ovibos').  'Oomingmak' is the Eskimo name for the muskox which translates to 'the Bearded One'.

Musk ox close up

Bright eyed muskox (4)

Muskox have long guard hairs that reach nearly to the ground. Underneath is a luxurious, downy fiber that allows them to be one of the only animals able to withstand Arctic temperatures as low as -100F!  While muskoxen are used for their milk, meat and hides/leather, a popular use of the animal has become harvesting their qiviut (kiv-ee-yit) -- the Eskimo word for 'down/underwool'. During the molt, this incredibly clean down can be gently lifted with a special comb, plucked directly from the animal or taken from any location where it has rubbed. If left alone, it will eventually fall from the muskox to the ground.

Basket of Qiviut

Basket of qiviut

musk ox

Molting muskox (5)

Musk Ox Fur

Molting muskox up close

Qiviut is highly regarded as one of the warmest, lightest weight and softest fibers in the world and proves impressive when compared to other fibers such as cashmere. It is washable using mild soap, doesn't shrink and--despite its delicate feel--is extremely durable. Because of the rarity of muskoxen, qiviut items are very expensive. A woman's qiviut sweater can easily run $1k.

A small group of Native Alaskan women began learning, and passing on to other women in remote villages, the intricate art of knitting this amazing fiber. In 1969, they formed a co-operative to use qiviut as a source of subsistence income, and named it Oomingmak . The co-op's headquarters is in Anchorage and they purchase all of the qiviut produced at The Musk Ox Farm in nearby Palmer, Alaska.

Musk Ox Farm
Baby Musk Ox

Some of it comes from the University of Alaska's Large Animal Research Station, also known as LARS, located in Fairbanks. They also get fiber from other natives who hunt muskoxen. The rich Native Alaskan culture respects and appreciates Alaska's natural resources and no part of an animal goes un-used. 

Qiviut Hood ( nachaq )

The Oomingmak knitters create scarves, hats and tunics. But the 'nachaq' which is the Eskimo word for hood (also called a 'smokering') is their specialty and you have to touch one to appreciate it fully.  Because qiviut is eight times warmer than sheep's wool, the intricate lacey pattern keeps the wearer from getting too warm and also makes it feather light.

large muskox

Gorgeous muskox (5)

Muskoxen are protected in many of their circumpolar locations such as parks and preserves, with one example being Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR (pronounced 'anwar') for short. However they may be hunted in Alaska under strict regulation by Alaska Fish & Game.

( Photos #1-5 courtesy of Wikimedia Commons )

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