Forgotten Species – The Musk Ox

If you ever come eye to eye with a musk ox you will probably never forget the experience, and this is still possible in a few places in Europe.

The musk ox (Ovibos moschatus) is a powerful, ancient arctic mammal of the Bovidae family. Contrary to what its name suggests, the musk ox is more closely related to goats and sheep than to oxen. Because of its hot-tempered behaviour in some seasons, and the fact that they can weight up till 450 kg, this is not an animal to turn your back on …!

Their uniquely layered woolly coat (Guard hairs) that almost reach the ground, makes them especially well adapted to life in arctic regions. In Europe they live in herds of between 8 and 30 animals. Both sexes have long curved horns, and a distinctive defensive behaviour when threatened by predators such as bears and wolves (and humans). When the herd feels threatened, the bulls and cows will face outward to form a stationary ring or semicircle around the calves. The bulls are usually the front line for defense against predators with the cows and juveniles gathering closely behind them.

During the summer, the musk ox eats grasses, willows, woody plants, lichens and mosses to build a reserve of fat for the winter, when they minimise searching for food to save energy. The only reason to search for food then is to keep the stomach working.

During the last ice age the musk ox was relatively widespread in Europe and even walked alongside mammoths and the woolly rhinoceros in Scandinavia around 30 000 years ago.

As the climate became warmer it was forced to move further north and eventually after also intensive hunting by human the musk ox became locally extinct. Only in North America and on Greenland have numbers remained and this is where you find the remaining natural population today. Nowadays, the musk ox is classified by the IUCN as 'Least Concern'.

During the 20th century, there were several attempts to reintroduce the musk ox in Norway and Sweden.  In 1947 eleven individuals were brought from Greenland to the Dovre mountain area in Norway. Currently the population there stands at 300 animals, but is still vulnerable. In Sweden, however, it has been more difficult to establish a local musk ox population, despite animals migrating every now and then from Norway.  The population in Sweden peaked in the middle of the 1980’s at about 30 animals, but since then has been in decline.  Possible explanations may include problems with inbreeding, disturbance from humans and also lack of food. Today the Swedish group of musk ox consists of just eight individuals.

A small group of dedicated people work hard spreading awareness of the musk ox and trying to secure the future of a healthy population in the Swedish mountains.   In June 2010 the breeding facility of Myskoxcentrum in Tännäs, Sweden was opened. It's purpose, apart from  breeding and research, is to spread knowledge and understanding of the musk ox and its situation in Scandinavia.

This magnificent ancient arctic mammal deserves more attention in Europe – raised awareness is essential for its future survival.??

Find out more about this and other forgotten species on the website of Photographers for Conservation, who have also provided EOCA with many wonderful wildlife images on their website.