Musk Ox

Flintlock Guns, Fort Langley

Flintlock Guns

The musk oxen are unusual animals found in the Barren Grounds of the Northwest Territories, in Northern Canada, and almost no where else. Their relationships are interesting: they are closer to goats than to cattle, which they resemble. You might wonder why I am telling you this, but I find them interesting and amusing, and their story will eventually connect up with James Anderson’s journal of his descent of the Great Fish River to the Arctic in 1855.

In order to learn more about the Arctic, I am currently reading a book by Adam Shoalts, titled Beyond the Trees [Penguin, 2019]. I am enjoying so far. It is the story of Shoalts’s solo journey across the Arctic from the Dempster Highway that runs through the Richardson Mountains from Yukon to the Mackenzie River, all the way to Baker Lake, near Hudson Bay. He is journeying more or less above the tree line the entire way. That means grizzlies, caribou, and a few other interesting animals. For example: one day, as he is poling up the Hare Indian River on his way to Great Bear Lake, he runs into four muskox: 

each of whom stared curiously at me. One was barely ten feet away, concealed on the riverbank as I poled by; neither of us noticed the other until we were directly opposite each other. The muskox snorted, apparently shocked to see me, and then glared with its enormous eyes, seemingly mystified by my presence. I apologized for the intrusion and poled hurriedly away.

Fortunately, musk ox are not aggressive animals, though I am sure they can be intimidating! A little after this first contact he ran across the corpse of a musk ox which had been killed by a grizzly. “Large as they are, muskox are occasionally killed by grizzlies when they’re caught unawares…” And some days earlier, he had been awoken in the night by a noise outside his tent, and saw “a massive, prehistoric-looking creature — an arctic muskox, with huge curved horns. The great muskox, weighing half a ton, glared at me. My goodness, I thought, I’d almost rather it was a grizzly.” He chased it off with a bear banger, and the muskox, “startled by the bang, paused for a moment, still looking at me, then galloped off, smashing and crashing through the fallen spruces as if they were mere matchsticks.”

So I guess we are getting the impression that musk oxen are large animals. They are. Somewhere along his route he had found a musk ox skull:

The enormous thing, horns and all, I estimated weighed fifty pounds! At the front of their skulls is a mass of hard bone, forming a kind of protective shield. The shield helps protect the males when they gallop and charge into each other, smashing their heads together with thunderous force. Such fierce contests are used to determine mating, sometimes inflicting severe and even fatal injuries on the losing muskox.

Like every other Arctic explorer, James Anderson and his men saw many of these strange creatures on his voyage down the Great Fish River to the Arctic Ocean in 1855. They had set off from Fort Resolution, Great Slave Lake, on June 22nd, and reached the headwaters of the Thlewyecho, or Great Fish River, on July 12. Their first sight of a musk ox was two days later, when he said, “2 Musk Oxen were seen at the Rapid of that name.” A day later, they saw:

Two bands of Musk Oxen, one of 5, the other of 20 animals, besides 5 or 6 solitary bulls, but only one shot was fired at them.

It doesn’t appear that the shot was successful in bringing an animal down, but a day later they saw a great number of Musk Oxen and many other animals, although apparently not as many as Commander George Back, who had descended the river, more than a decade earlier, had seen. Anderson recorded that:

Back saw immense numbers of Reindeer and Musk Oxen in this part of the River; we saw but 10 of the former and about 40 of the latter — 28 of these were in one drove; they were of all sizes — the calves look like black pigs.

After this they saw musk oxen regularly as they descended the river, and on one occasion they shot one. “A little before encamping saw a reindeer [caribou], but could not put ashore as we were just entering the rapids. When making this portage a big musk bull was discovered and I had the luck to knock him over. The men are now cutting him up. Query the quality of the meat. We [Anderson and his second-in-command, James Green Stewart] shall sup on a goose shot by Mr. Stewart.”

So, you may wonder, what is a musk ox? Its Latin name is Ovibos moschatus. Its name is derived from their musky odour and from a superficial resemblance to the ox, but they are not closely related to Bison nor to cattle of any sort. Musk oxen are far more closely related to the mountain goat, chamois, and serow, and are placed in the bovid subfamily Caprinae, along with true goats and sheep! The Bovidae family to which they belong is divided into 2 subfamilies: the caprinae and the bovinae. Cattle ended up in the Bovinea sub-family, and Musk Ox and Mountain goats in the Caprinae. (I am presuming the family is Bovidea and the sub-family is Bovinea, but I might be wrong.)

For your information, the chamois is a goat-antelope from the mountains of Europe, and the serows are six species of a goat or antelope type animals in Japan. (Hmmm! Goat-Antelope. That sounds like pronghorn antelope, doesn’t it? But the pronghorn is a unique animal in North America and around the world. It is the only surviving member of the Antilocapridae family and it has been in North America for a million years!)

So, back to the Musk Ox, which we now know is slightly related to the Bison and to cattle, but more closely related to the Mountain goat. Canada is the home to most of the world’s native musk oxen, and they are found on the Barren Grounds in the Northwest Territories to the north. They, and the long-extinct saiga antelope, were originally African animals, and during the ice age both adapted to the cold and spread throughout northern Eurasia. Of course, they crossed the land bridge and ended up in North America! Fossils of Musk Oxen have been found in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia. “Like their goat cousins,” this article says, fossils “showed this tough animal could absorb nutritional value from dead plant material, reminding one of the cartoon stereotype of goats eating the wrappers off tin cans.” To find this afore-mentioned article, google “Musk-oxen are more closely related to Goats than they are to Cows.”

Musk oxen are stocky, long-haired animals with a slight shoulder hump and a very short tail hidden under its long guard hairs which hang nearly to the ground. They live north of the tree line on the arctic tundra, where summer is short and the winters long and harsh. Mature bulls stand about 5 feet high at the shoulder and weigh 600 to 800 pounds. Cows are smaller, averaging approximately 4 feet in height and weighing 400-500 pounds. As a result of their choice of habitat, they have barrel-shaped bodies with short legs, and their entire bodies are covered with hair, except for the small area between the nostrils and lips. They have two kinds of hair: their guard hair is the continually growing dark hairs that create the characteristic long, shaggy coat. The quiviut (kiv-ee-Ute) hair is the insulating winter coat of the musk oxen, which grows in the fall and winter and is shed through the guard hairs in the spring. The quiviut is finer than cashmere and eight times warmer than wool, and as a result of its rarity is very valuable.  

Their musk ox horns are interesting: both males and females grow horns, but the females lack the extra thickness of skull (called a horn boss) at the base of the horns. The skull that Adam Shoalts found, above, certainly sounds as if it was the skull of a male musk ox!

And of course we all remember that it is musk oxen that circle to protect the herd, with the calves in the centre of the circle and adults on the outside with horns pointed out toward the predator. They are not animals that can run fast enough to escape predators such as wolves or bears because they overheat — all that hair! But toss and trample a wolf? They can do that! 

You might enjoy this information, which contains additional information and a film that will give you a headache! Here it is: 

So of course I am writing about musk oxen, as James Anderson did run into them on his journey north. In my manuscript, what I said was this:  

Musk Oxen may resemble cattle but are more closely related to the Mountain Goat and other members of the caprinae family. In fact, Musk Oxen are little more than large goats with long, shaggy hair: hair that covers a shorter undercoat that insulates them in wintertime. Herds of these animals roam over the entire Arctic tundra, grazing on roots, mosses, and lichen in winter, and grass or flowers in the summertime.

“Musk,” by the way, is a sweet smelling, peculiarly penetrating odour that is used to make men’s cologne. Musk oxen have their name because their meat is impregnated with musk: the meat of a well-fed cow might be agreeable in taste, but “that of a lean cow and of the bull is strongly impregnated with a disagreeable musky flavour, so as to be palatable only to a very hungry man.” (Back’s Narrative, p. 501.) Anderson’s men were apparently hungry, as they dined well on the Musk Ox that Anderson shot! But I also don’t think they shot another musk ox for dinner. Perhaps it wasn’t so delicious after all!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.