Muskox, or muskoxen, are large Arctic mammals found in Canada and parts of Greenland. These animals have a number of adaptations which make them especially suitable to the Arctic environment, and they have been utilized as prey by native peoples in their home range for thousands of years. Muskox products continue to be exported from the Arctic, with the most coveted being qiviut, the extremely soft, downy underfur of the muskox, which can be spun into very high quality yarns.
As the “ox” suggests, muskox are bovids, closely related to goats and sheep, and like these animals, muskoxen have a strong odor, which in their case is heavily musky. These animals are brown to black in color, with very thick, shaggy coats which molt in the spring and summer. They are also extremely compact and stocky, with some muskoxen weighing up to 836 pounds (about 380 kilograms). Their muscular bodies help to protect them from predators, and provide a healthy layer of insulation to protect them from the Arctic weather, which can get extremely cold.
These animals roam in herds of up to 100 individuals, typically overseen by a dominant male. Mating season is in the fall, with calves being born in the late spring. Female muskoxen nurse the calves for a year, and most calves supplement their diets with grasses as they grow. Because muskoxen only have calves every two years, some biologists have been concerned in the past that numbers of the animals could shrink dangerously low.
As one might imagine from an Arctic animal, the muskox is very hardy. These animals feed on lichen, roots, mosses, bark, and whatever else they can forage during the winter, stocking up on flowers, grasses, and shrubs during the summer, when the weather is more favorable for plants. The slow maturity rate for these bovids allows them to mature gradually, developing layers of muscle which will be retained for life.
Muskox populations were indeed troubled in some areas due to overhunting. The animals were entirely gone from the state of Alaska, thanks to overzealous hunters, before the Alaskan Department of Fish and Game imported a few, establishing a breeding colony. Muskoxen are especially important to Inuit and native communities, where the animals are used for their skin, fur, meat, and horns, with muskox hunting being an important part of traditional life.