A hoofed ruminant mammal, it is found only in arctic North America (primarily Canada) and Greenland. The northern most member of the cattle family, the muskox grazes on the stunted vegetation of the tundra, primarily lichens and grasses. During the middle of the 19th Century, first the plains bison was hunted to extinction in the United States, then the muskox was exterminated in Alaska. It was later restored there from Canadian herds, but only on Nunivak Island. Hunted by man for its meat and its extremely warm fur, numbers were reduced in Canada by as many as 22,000 per year until, in 1917, only 1,500 remained. That year, Canada declared it a protected animal. Today, there are over 120,000 in Canada, with 20,000 on the mainland and the remainder spread across Canada's arctic islands. 80% of the world's muskoxen population lives in Canada.
Its stoutly built body, about 120 cm tall at the shoulder in the male, is covered by a long, shaggy, brown to black coat, which conceals a short tail and the upper part of the short legs. The body has a musky odour. The horns are broad and flattened and nearly meet across the forehead at their base. The horns extend out from the sides of the head, curving downward and then upward in a hook. The hooves are very large and widely splayed, an adaptation for walking on snow. The muskoxen live in herds of from 10 to 20 individuals in summer and of up to 100 in winter. They are uniquely suited for arctic life. Faced by starvation during extended winter periods or by heavy snowfall or ice conditions, the muskox digestive systems actually re-programs itself to make better use of available food. Some body functions are slowed to conserve energy and their liver and kidneys actually reduce by ½ their weight. This allows a healthy female muskox (cow) to actually conclude a winter with a fat reserve that lasts through several weeks of milk production to feed her calf, until the tundra begins to green.
After human hunters, their chief enemy is the arctic wolf. When threatened, the herd forms a protective wall or circle. They move side by side, horns pointing outward, with the young and weak gathered inside the circle at the centre. An individual dominant males (bulls) may attack from the protection of the circle and is quite capable of killing a wolf on its sharp horns.
The muskox is classified in the phylum CORDATA, subphylum Vertabrata, class Mammalia, order Artiodatyla, family Bovidae. (also spelled: musk-ox, musk ox)
References: Canadian Geographic Magazine (and photo)