Two bull muskoxen face each other in the snow
Bull muskoxen in the snow

NPS Photo/Marci Johnson

Unlike some animals that hibernate or migrate southward in the winter, muskoxen are year-round residents of Cape Krusenstern National Monument. They are well suited to survive the rigorous and demanding environment of the arctic. Their bodies are compact and covered with layers of thick, insulating fur and longer guard hairs.

Even their behavior is geared to conserving energy, which is their main survival strategy. While they are agile and can gallop in a short burst of speed, their most common pace is a slow, measured walk.

Dark brown bull muskox stares out of a field of green blueberry bushes
Bull muskox

NPS Photo

The Bearded One

Inupiaq Eskimo call muskoxen Oomingmak, meaning “hairy one” or “bearded one.” This is because of the long, elegant shaggy fur that trails like skirts along their flanks. Their fur is dark brown with a creamy “saddle” across the back, as if it were dusted with snow.

Muskoxen grow to about 8.2 feet long and 4.6 feet high at the shoulder, weighing 440-880 pounds. Contrary to their name, muskoxen are more closely related to goats and sheep than oxen. For an animal of this size, muskoxen seem to have a relatively small home range.

In the winter, groups of muskoxen appear to return to favorite wintering sites where snow is relatively shallow and swept free by wind. Muskoxen use their hooves to dig through snow for roots, mosses, and lichen. They do not do well in deep snow and the snow depth seems to be a factor limiting their distribution. Once the animals have settled on a wintering site, they seem to prefer staying there throughout most of the winter unless they are disturbed and frightened into abandoning the site.

In the spring, they begin to scatter and move to lower elevations to feed on lush vegetation. These herbivores graze on Arctic flowers, reeds, sedges, and grasses. They often feed near water.

Light brown musk ox fur caught in willows overlooking tundra and a creek
Muskox qiviut caught in willows

NPS Photo/Rachel Post

Muskox also start to shed their dense fur, called qiviut. Imagine if you were a muskox and the time has come to shed your dense underfur. It’s hot and itchy. For this reason muskox are often found rubbing themselves against any available surface. Willows, downed trees, and even buildings are popular places for muskox to use to shed their qiviut quicker. Local subsistence users still utilize qiviut in their knitting.

In the late fall, muskoxen can generally be found moving back to their favorite wintering areas.


Last updated: September 21, 2023

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