Species Spotlight! Musk Ox : "The Bearded One" — Alaska Wildlife Alliance (AWA) (2024)

The Musk ox has lived in the Arctic for centuries. Known as Oomingmak, or “bearded one” by the Inupiaq people in Arctic Alaska, they have outlived wooly mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, and many other animals from the last ice age over 11,700 years ago.

Today, Musk ox can be found in northern Canada, Greenland, Alaska, Norway, Sweden, and Siberian Russia. They have two thick layers of fur that allow them to live in the treeless arctic tundra, one of the harshest environments with temperatures of –40 degrees or colder in the winter and cutting winds.

Alaska Musk oxen were virtually hunted to extinction in the 1800’s, and were later reintroduced in the 1930’s. Today, nearly 5,300 Alaska Musk Oxen live across the state. But they are still fighting for survival:

  • Musk oxen numbers have declined in certain areas of Alaska

  • Their defense mechanism is effective against natural predators like bear and wolves, but makes them vulnerable against hunters

  • Climate change threatens their ability to find food

Did You Know…

  • Musk oxen are not oxen, they’re actually more closely related to goats and sheep.

  • The musk ox gets its name from the strong, musky smell that they release during mating season, which isn’t actually musk.

  • They have a soft brownish wool-like under hair, qiviut, that is highly valued, and has been called the rarest fiber in the world.

  • The musk ox is one of the oldest mammals in all of North America, virtually unchanged since the last ice age. You can find prehistoric musk ox fossils on display at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Museum of the North.

  • The pupils of musk oxen eyes are horizontal, which act like sunglasses to reduce the glare of the sun reflected off snow and ice.


Ovibos moschatus – musk ox (plural: musk oxen); Oomingmak - the bearded one (Alaskan Native name)


The musk ox is a stocky, long-haired mammal with a slight shoulder hump, short legs, and a very short tail. Mature, male bulls are about 5 feet high at the shoulder and weigh 600-800 pounds; female cows are smaller, averaging approximately 4 feet and 400-500 pounds.

Both male and female muskoxen have horns they keep for life, but the horns of bulls are larger and heavier than those of cows. The skull of an adult male is 3 inches thick, and the horn boss is four inches thick. The thick skull and horns are used for defense against their main natural predators, bears and wolves, and in dominance displays.

With their stubby legs, musk oxen are not migratory. Their large and widely splayed hooves provide good traction and make for a good tool for pawing through snow to vegetation.

Their body is covered in two distinct layers of coats: a long, coarse, outer layer and a short, fine, underwool called qiviut (pronounced KIV’-EE-UTE). The outer coat of coarse guard hairs reaches nearly to the ground, protects qiviut, sheds water, and keeps insects at bay. The dense inner coat qiviut provides warmth, extends into nostrils, and is shed in the summer.

During harsh winters, they save energy by just standing or lying still. Extremely energy-efficient, they slow their breathing, heart rate, and digestion so they can survive on less food until the spring. Their compact size also helps them minimize heat loss and conserve energy.

Muskoxen live farther north than most other hoofed animals and are found in the Arctic tundra of Canada, Greenland, Russia, Sweden, Norway, and of course, Alaska.

Muskoxen in Alaska can be found in northcentral, northeastern, and northwestern Alaska, on Nunivak Island, Nelson Island, the Seward Peninsula, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and in domestic herds across the state.

During the summer, musk oxen live in wet areas, such as heavily vegetated river valleys, moving to higher elevations in the winter to avoid deep snow.

Muskoxen are poorly adapted for digging through heavy snow for food, so winter habitat is generally restricted to areas with shallow snow accumulations or areas blown free of snow. Watch this video of Musk Ox in summer…

By the 1920s, musk oxen had disappeared from Alaska, with the only remaining animals being found in east Greenland and Arctic Canada. International concern over the impending extinction of this animal led to an effort to restore a population in Alaska.

In 1930 the U.S. government relocated 34 musk ox calves from Greenland to Alaska. Their first stop was Fairbanks, where they spent 5 years before they were moved to their permanent home on Nunivak Island. The program was a success and since then musk oxen have been either relocated or reintroduced to other parts of Alaska.


Natural predators to musk oxen include wolves and bears, but they are also hunted by humans. When threatened, musk oxen form a defensive circle or line.

If attacked by a predator, they will first run to a higher location, then turn and stand shoulder to shoulder, facing outward, heads lowered, forming an impressive wall of musk oxen. The calves are safely protected behind this wall, in the middle of the ring.

If necessary, an adult or two may charge from the circle to attack the predators, and the circle would close behind them. This defense works well against their natural predators, wolves, and bears, but makes them vulnerable to human hunters.

Though musk oxen had lived in Alaska for thousands of years, by the late 1800s there were no musk oxen left in Alaska, and as few as 5,000 in the entire world. After reintroduction efforts began in 1930, almost 4,000 muskoxen existed in Alaska by 2000.

In recent years, the herds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and adjoining areas have declined. No one knows exactly why the musk ox went extinct in Alaska, but it has been speculated it was because of climatic changes that made it hard for the animals to live and find enough food.

Climate change is still a threat to musk ox survival. Watch a video about their survival in cold-weather environments and climate change concerns below.

Muskoxen breed from August through October. After an 8-month gestation, cows give birth to a calf the following April, May, or June. Cows may not give birth every year if food is scarce and the weather is harsh.

At birth a calf weighs 18 - 25 pounds, gaining weight rapidly weighing 150-235 pounds at a year old. Cows reach adult stature at 3-4 years, bulls at 6-8 years. Muskoxen live to be about 20 years old.

Young bulls are driven out of their herd as they approach breeding age, and may form their own bachelor herds until they are old enough and strong enough to overpower a dominant bull to take over his herd. During the rut, or mating season, bulls will compete for mates in spectacular and violent contests.

After a period of aggressive displays, the bulls charge at top speed (up to 35 mph) from distances of 50 yards or more and collide squarely on the horn bosses. After a clash, the bulls back away from each other swinging their heads from side to side, and repeat the sequence until one bull turns and runs away.

Although they do not migrate, musk oxen will range about 50 miles between summer and winter feeding areas. Winter herds may include up to 75 animals.

Smaller harem groups that form during the mating season contain anywhere from 5 to 15 females and sub-adults, with one dominant bull who prevents other adult bulls from entering the group. Bulls that are excluded from these breeding herds wander widely in search of a harem, but generally rejoin mixed-sex herds in the winter.


Muskoxen are herbivores, eating only plants. They eat a wide variety of plants, including grasses, sedges, forbs, mosses, lichens, and woody plants including dwarf willows, dwarf alders, and dwarf birch.

Muskoxen are ruminants, mammals whose stomachs have four compartments. They digest plant-based food by first softening it within the first compartment of their stomach, then regurgitating the semi-digested mass, now known as cud, and chewing it again. They quickly consume large amounts of food that are digested later when the animal is at rest.

This unique digestive system allows musk oxen to maximize as much energy and nutrients as possible from the plants they eat.


Species Spotlight! Musk Ox : "The Bearded One" — Alaska Wildlife Alliance (AWA) (2024)
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