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It’s time to consider the mighty muskox (Ovibos moschatu) a survivor from the ice age. Possessing powerful curved horns, which hang down like side bangs from a helmet-like skullcap, muskoxen are actually more closely related to sheep and goats than to cattle and oxen (although all of the above are members of the Bovidae family). Adult muskoxen weigh from 180 to 400 kg (400 to 900 pounds) but they look much larger on account of their thick coats and large heads. Once muskoxen proliferated throughout the northern hemisphere alongside wooly mammoths and aurochs, but hunting and habitat loss caused them to retreat further and further into the remotest parts of the north until the end of the nineteenth century when the animals could only be found in the unpopulated wilderness and empty islands of northern Canada and deep in the arctic fastnesses of Greenland.
In these remote locations tiny herds of one to two dozen muskoxen still subsist on grasses, willows, lichens and moss while contending with terrible arctic predators and fearsome cold. Fortunately the muskox is provisioned with fearsome horns and doughty neighbors to fend off polar bears and wolves. The herd is capable of assembling in a ring formation with horns outward to stand off wolves and ice bears (although such a strategy works less well against humans with our projectile weapons). To fight the cold, the muskoxen have fat reserves and one of the most remarkable insulating coats in the animal world.
A muskox’s coat is divided into two layers: a long stringy layer of coarse outer wool and an inner layer of soft warm underwool called qiviut (this Inuit word now primarily denotes muskox wool but it was once also used to refer to similarly soft warm inner down of arctic birds). Qiviut is one of the world’s premier luxury fibers: it is allegedly 8 times more effective at insulation than sheep’s wool and yet is softer than cashmere. Unlike sheep’s wool, it does not shrink in water at any temperature.
Every season a musk ox sheds his or her down coating and qiviut can be obtained in the wild by plucking cast-off tufts from thorns and snares. Unfortunately such qiviut is of lower quality than that obtained by combing/plucking the hides of hunted muskox—so demand for qiviut was driving down musk ox numbers. Fortunately, a gentler solution is becoming more prevalent—muskox farming.
Last month I devoted a week to writing about the domestication of various plants and animals (the gist of those writings can be found here, in a post about a strange feral Renaissance painting). Of course many animals have escaped the yoke of domestication, and the muskox was one such creature—until recently. Ranchers have made use of hard-won knowledge of large animals and the muskoxen’s herd instincts to create muskox farms. A modified bison crush is used to immobilize the live muskoxen while they are combed and plucked (I desperately wanted a photo but there was nothing online—so you’ll have to make do with the baby muskox pictures below).
Thanks to reintroduction programs, there are now muskox herds in Siberia, Sweden, Norway, and Alaska as well as in Canada and Greenland. Farm herds are further swelling the numbers of these magnificent beasties.