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The muskox is an Arctic mammal belonging to the Bovid Family. Though it has some resemblance to the bison, the muskox is actually more closely related to sheep and goats. The scientific name, Ovibos moschatus, means “musky sheep-cow”.
Image: A muskox.
Why this species is important
Muskoxen were hunted almost to the point of extinction in the early 1900s. As Bison hides became harder to obtain, muskox hides were used in horse-drawn carriages to keep the occupants warm in the winter. Today, muskoxen are hunted for both their hides and for their meat. Muskox wool, known as qiviut, is a prized and expensive natural fibre, which gives great warmth and beauty when spun and knitted into lacy scarves, shawls and sweaters.
Muskox and climate change
Muskoxen are found from the tree line to the northernmost arctic coasts in Canada and Greenland. Native populations persist only in tundra environments of the Arctic. They are well adapted to live in this environment. However, as climate change is expected to result in a rise in Arctic temperatures, it is widely believed that the tree line will slowly encroach into the North. This may eventually lead to a decrease in the tundra range the muskoxen need to survive.
Sliding the scale from left (2000) to right (2090), the air temperature increases. As the climate warms the average air temperature will rise by at least 12°C. This increase in air temperature may have a major impact on the health of the tundra and eventually will begin to limit the range of muskoxen.
2090 (*projected air temperature)
2000 (air temperature)
Climate change and starvation
As northern climates change, and the tree line moves north, the southern distribution of muskoxen will also move north. With the changes in Arctic climate and weather, an increase in specific weather events such as wet snowfalls followed by freezing may lead to widespread and devastating die-offs. Restricted access to normal feeding areas of muskoxen because of snow and ice conditions can result in starvation.
Leader of the herd
Research by scientists from the Canadian Museum of Nature involving the ear-tagging and colour-marking of individual muskoxen has shown that solitary muskox bulls are important to the muskox herd structure. Single male muskoxen are often mature bulls moving from one herd to another, or younger bulls looking for a new herd and a chance to compete for access to females.
Prior to this research, wildlife managers believed that solitary bulls were old bulls, no longer active in breeding, and therefore should be hunted for food or sport.
The circle of life
In the High Arctic, when Arctic wolves kill a muskox, the carcass becomes a “rendezvous site” for the pack. Northern wolf pups must travel with the pack much earlier than southern wolves. The use of a muskox carcass as a meeting point ensures that the pups have food while they wait for the pack to make the next kill.
A surreal animal
This video shows an adult male muskox grazing. While muskoxen graze, they are constantly moving across the Arctic tundra. This movement helps prevent overgrazing.
Transcript: A surreal animal
A lone muskox bull walks in the distance on a grassy plain. He stops to eat some grass, he pulls his head up and keeps moving. A close up view of the muskox bull, he stares at the camera. The muskox bull turns around and keeps going.