Musk oxen were already roaming the Arctic tundra when mammoths were still alive. Man almost eradicated the stoic animals at the turn of the last century. In the meantime, their might fights can be heard again in the tundra.
When the glaciers in Switzerland had flowed just before Baden and most of the major cities of the Swiss midlands were buried under the mighty ice of the Wuerm Cold Period, a large number of animals were present on the barren tundra areas at the edge of the glacier. One of them was the muskox, which, together with his colleague, the much larger mammoth, had already moved into the territory of today’s Switzerland more than 35,000 years ago. But these flagship animals of the cold ages no longer exist, neither in Switzerland nor anywhere else in the world: the mammoth is extinct, as is the cave bear and the aurochs, the woolly rhinoceros and the giant deer – only one remains, the musk ox.
This shaggy horn-bearer, which looks like an ox, but is much more closely related to sheep and goats, is today one of the character animals of the high Arctic. It is estimated that there are currently about 170,000 musk oxen living in Greenland, Canada (just under 110,000 individuals), Alaska (about 4’300 animals) and Russia (about 16,000). It is one of the few large mammals that can survive year-round in the harsh habitat of the Arctic. The fact that this ice age veteran is now re-emerging around the Arctic Ocean is due to circlepolar conservation efforts.
For a long time, his survival hung on a thin thread. Since the ice age, people have hunted the musk oxen for their own needs. His meat was a valuable food source, his warm fur was clothing and cold protection, tools were made from the mighty horns. Only later did a trend develop to sell meat and fur to others. This practice, combined with ever-better firearms from hunters, led to the disappearance of musk oxen in Alaska in the late 19th century, for example.
The main buyers of musk ox meat for a long period of time were commercial whalers who wintered on their ships alonog the Arctic coasts of Alaska. The musk oxen in the remote northwest of Greenland had a similar experience. Here also, polar expeditions used the living meat supply, which the musk oxen represented in the eyes of many expedition participants at that time. Around 1870, the already few musk oxen were wiped out on the northwest corner of Greenland – not 4,500 years after they had immigrated there from Canada.
Also on the mainland of Canada, the old friends of the mammoths suffered from an exuberant commercial hunt, until the population had collapsed in the thirties of the 20th century to perhaps 500 musk oxen. For animals on the Arctic islands in the far north of Canada, especially on Banks and Victoria, not hunting pressure, but a series of unusually strong ice storms caused stocks to decline sharply at the beginning of the 20th century. Finally, Canada placed its musk oxen under full hunting protection in 1917, which was later loosened by a quota hunt in the face of a highly recovering population.
In 1974, Greenland moved in, placed the musk oxen under hunting protection and issued annual quotas for the local hunters. Today, Greenland has around 40,000 animals, mainly in the North East Greenland National Park (the largest national park in the world). There, small groups of families still live on the tundra at Cape Morris Jesup, the northernmost land area on earth at 83°40′ north latitude.
In Alaska, Greenlandic musk oxen were first deployed in 1930 as part of a resettlement project. The re-colonialization seems to have been successful: Today, about 4,300 animals live in various large areas of Alaska. Hunting is allowed again under strict controls.
In Arctic Siberia, where these animals went extinct about 13,000 years ago, the authorities re-introduced Canadian musk oxen on Wrangel Island in 1975. A few years later, Alaskan animals were introduced on the Taimyr Peninsula, and about fifteen years ago, an attempt was made to re-colonize the Lena Delta and the northern Urals. Approximately 250 musk oxen, imported from Greenland, live on the fells of Norway and Sweden.
Cold and barren landscapes have always been part of the habitat of the musk oxen and which they inhabit in herds of five to 15 animals. How do these sluggish animals manage to live on the edge of the habitable world – and survive the mammoths? Fighting the cold and energy saving are the two most important prerequisites for living in the high Arctic all year round and still reaching 15 to 20 years of age.
The heat balance of the musk ox is mainly regulated by its exceptional fur as well as by a large proportion of brown fat. As with many other Arctic mammals, brown fat is the real source of efficient heat production. Especially newborn animals born in the cold have large reserves of brown fat. This, in contrast to the “normal” fat, is rich in blood vessels with a high density of mitochondria, the energy machines of the cells. Therefore, brown fat can be used directly and within minutes for heat production.
Just as important for the musk oxen as the brown fat is their magnificent hair cover. Thanks to a sophisticated structure, the fur has an exceptional insulation value. An outer layer consists of about 50 centimeters long, silky, almost black cover hair. Underneath it grows a new layer of dense, soft, light brown undercoat, called “Qiviut” by the Inuit. This insulates eight times better than sheep’s wool and hangs on many branches of the dwarf shrubs in the Arctic summer, when each muskox strips up to 3 kilograms of this wool on the bushes.
Those who are perfectly heated from the inside and protected from the outside like the muskox, must be able to release any excess body heat somewhere in order to avoid overheating. The musk oxen lose heat due to a slightly thinner hairy spot on the back, which often is recognizable as a beige colored “saddle” from a distance.
In the short summer months, with their growing season of 50 to 100 days, our densely haired ruminants have to eat as much grass and the shoots of polar willows and other dwarf shrubs as possible to gain enough fat reserves for the winter. However, the animal remains easy-going: On average, musk oxen travel only 2 kilometers a day in low-lying plains or river valleys when grazing in summer.
When winter arrives, the musksox first pare back its metabolism by 30 percent. It rests for 7 to 8 hours at a time, lies a lot in the snow and sleeps and therefore needs less energy. As soon as snow covers the tundra, the muskox must dig out its food. In doing so, he prefers windswept clumps where there is less snow; From 30 centimetres of snow height, the short-legged ungulate, whose ancestors originated in the dry cold steppes of the Ice Age, gets quite sweaty. Snow hare and ptarmigans, two animal species, who also do not prefer moving to the sunny south, also benefit from the funnels in the snow, which are formed with the sharp-edged hooves of muskoxen
Grassing with brains
It becomes particularly difficult to scrape for food when the snow surface is frozen to ice. This can be happen, for example, by Foehn winds in winter, as we know them from the Alps. They are a feature of the climate in some places in the Arctic, such as Greenland. As in our classic Foehn valleys, the temperature above the Greenlandt tundra rises within 2, 3 hours by 10 to 20 degrees, the air becomes dry as in a desert, and the wind reaches speeds of up to 150 kilometers per hour. The East Greenlanders call this weather situation neqqajaaq – it has catastrophic consequences for the animals. When it refreezes after the sudden thaw, the previously melted snow surface turns into a thick, rock-hard ice crust. Such events are called “rain-on-snow event / ROS” in science: it rains briefly on the wintry snow cover, which then freezes again.
Not only reindeer and polar hares have literally bitten their teeth off, but domesticated animals in the far north also suffer from such periodic ROS events. In November 2013, for example, rainy weather on the Siberian Yamal Peninsula caused 61,000 reindeer (from a total herd size of 275,000 animals) to starve to death .
But our muskox is at an advantage in such tragic moments: it lifts its powerful skull and lets its horn plate, which connects the two pointed, curved horns, smash down vigorously on the harp crust. If nothing works, the snowstorm rages, and still energy has to be saved, then often whole herds can be snowed in easily.
However, the fearsome skull of the musk ox is not only used for easier food procurement in winter. The pointed horns and the centimeter-thick horn plates are proven weapons. During the annual mating season, for example, severe fights with contemporaries occur. Two fighting males, weighing up to 400 kilos, let their skulls collide with a primal force, which only gets you a headaches from watching. The loud bang can be heard within a radius of up to one kilometer.
If one of their natural enemies, polar bear and polar wolf, appears, the musk oxen stand shoulder to shoulder in a circle, the skkulls with their horns facing the enemy like a bulwark. Behind this defensive circle are the females and young. What had proved to be a clever strategy to defend against enemies over tens of thousands of years was an easy target for modern humans with rifles: in a few minutes, hunters could easily slay an entire herd. Fortunately, such times are over – thanks to far-reaching conservation measures, the original defensive ring of the musk oxen can now be admired again in many places in the Arctic. The phalanx of these quaint, shaggy animals, whose long hair blows in the constant tundra wind, is one of the most enduring images from the far north. And who would have thought that you could still meet an animal that was once a friend of the mammoths?
Muskox – Musk deer?
Often the Arctic musk ox is stamped as the supplier of the musk scent in perfumes. But the shaggy Northerner has nothing to do with this valuable and fabled fragrance, which is highly sought after and expensively paid in the perfume industry and traditional Asian medicine. The real musk scent comes from the musk deer, a small deer from the mountain forests of Central and Southeast Asia. A gland, which only the male musk deers possess, secretes the fragrance musk, which is supposed to attract the females. The Arctic musksox, on the other hand, has its name in reference to the sweet urine that smells of the “perfume musk” and which the bulls excrete during the mating season.
By Peter Balwin (text) and Norbert Rosing (pictures)