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Kingdom: Animalia
  Phylum: Chordata
    Class: Mammalia
      Order: Artiodactyla
        Family: Bovidae
          Subfamily: Caprinae
            Genus: Ovibos

Ovibos moschatus

      Musk ox


Ovibos moschatus [Zimmermann, 1780].  
Citation: Geogr. Gesch. Mensch. Vierf. Thiere, 2:86.
Type locality: Canada, Manitoba, between Seal and Churchill Rs.

Click on the pictures above for a larger view of the photographs

General Characteristics

Body Length: 200-245 cm / 6.6-8.1 ft.
Shoulder Height: 125-135 cm / 4.1-4.5 ft.
Tail Length: 10-14 cm / 4-5.6 in.
Weight: 180-380 kg / 396-836 lb.

The long, shaggy guard hairs are dark brown in colour, and, at nearly 60 cm / 2 feet in length, may almost reach the ground.  Hidden beneath these guard hairs is an insulating layer of light gray underwool.  The lower legs are pale, as is a patch in the centre of the back.  The body is massive - and seems even more so due to the long hair and short legs.  There is a hump on the shoulders, and the head is carried low with no neck to speak of.  The hook-like horns are found in both sexes, and almost resemble an old-fashioned women's hairstyle.  Pale yellow in colour, they form a large boss on the skull, thinning as they sweep down and away from the head, ending with the sharp tips curving upwards.  The horns are significantly thicker and form a larger boss in males.

Ontogeny and Reproduction

Gestation Period: 8.5 months.
Young per Birth: 1, rarely twins.
Weaning: At 10-18 months.
Sexual Maturity: Females at 3-4 years, males at 5-6 years.
Life span: 20-24 years.

Females give birth between April and June, and do so amongst the herd.

Ecology and Behavior

A nomadic species, the musk ox perpetually wanders the Arctic tundra, moving an average of 2 kilometers / 1 mile daily between feeding sites.  Periods of grazing are alternated with rest periods, each about 2.5 hours long.  Contrary to many species, the musk ox migrates from sheltered, moist lowlands in the summer to higher, barren plateaus in winter.  The primary reason for this is food - the exposed plateaus do not accumulate snow due to the high winds, therefore making food easier to find.  The distance travelled between summer and winter areas generally does not exceed 80 kilometers / 48 miles.  The characteristic defence pattern of this species is a ring, with the young hidden in the centre and the adults facing outward.  While this is extremely effective against wolf attacks, it has made them very easy targets for human hunters with high powered rifles.  Conflicts between males occur throughout the year, although the frequency is expectedly higher during the breeding season.  Confrontations generally consist of two rivals rushing towards each other at up to 40 kmph / 24 mph, clashing their horns together.  This may occur up to 20 times in a row over a course of 50 minutes.  Accompanied by these charges are lion-like roars.  These fights merely determine dominance, with the loser remaining part of the herd.  Population densities vary from 0.3-0.45 animals per square kilometer.

Family group: Herds of 10-20 animals with an adult male and several females with their offspring.  Bulls not belonging to one of these herds may form bachelor groups.
Diet: Grasses, sedges, flowering plants, leaves of shrubs.
Main Predators: Wolf, rarely polar bear.


Arctic tundra in Canada, Alaska, and Greenland.

Range Map (Compiled from Shackleton, 1997)

Conservation Status

Although the musk ox was previously threatened by hunting, it is currently not in danger, with a population numbering around 80,000 animals.


Although bison-like in appearance, the musk ox is actually allied with goats and sheep, and is thought to be most closely related to the Asian takin (Budorcas taxicolor).  Its fine underwool is a prized natural fiber, and is made into expensive shawls and sweaters by the native Inuit.  Ovis (Latin) a sheep; bos (Latin) an ox: it has features in common with the ox and sheep.  Moschatus (New Latin) musky: it has preorbital glands that secrete a musky odour.

Literature Cited

Gray, D. R., and B. Grzimek.  1990.  Musk oxen (Ovibos moschatus).  In Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Mammals.  Edited by S. P. Parker.  New York: McGraw-Hill.  Volume 5, pp. 560-567.

Nowak, R. M. [editor]. 1991. Walker's Mammals of the World (Fifth Edition). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Shackleton, D. M. [Editor] and the IUCN/SSC Caprinae Specialist Group.  1997.  Wild Sheep and Goats and their Relatives.  Status Survey and Action Plan for Caprinae.   IUCN: Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.

Wilson, D. E., and D. M. Reeder [editors]. 1993. Mammal Species of the World (Second Edition). Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.  Available online at

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