When is an Ox Not an Ox?Meet the Musk Ox!

By Susan Birkenshaw

Dating back to the days of the sabre-toothed tiger and wooly mammoth, the musk ox (Ovibos moschatus) can be traced back over 600,000 years. In the northern tundra culture of the Inuit, the musk ox has been revered as a gift from their gods and protected as a strong source of food (from the meat), warmth and protection (from the wool and hides), and weapons (from the horns and bones). As strong and respectful hunters, the Inuit have used every part of their hunt.

Distinctly identifiable by the musky odor of males during mating season, the musk ox bears little resemblance to the bison or the ox as we know them today. In fact, they are more closely related to mountain goats and bighorn sheep, with their cloven hooves and an astonishing nimbleness on the icy terrain that they call home. Much warmer and softer than sheep wool, musk ox wool (qiviut) is also simpler to harvest, done by brushing the loose hairs from the hide or collecting the commonly dropped patches around their habitat. This wooly Qiviut has been measured as eight times warmer than the sheep and much more waterproof, all the while being lighter per weight. It is stronger than sheep wool and surprisingly finer than cashmere, produced by Kashmir and pashmina goats.

In the wild, these majestic animals are smaller than their bison cousins. They have large dish-like hooves with two toes, which can spread across the ice and rocky terrain for better footing. This is an excellent adaptation to their environment, as they live commonly at the very northern edge of the Arctic lands in the Northwest Territories and the northeast coast of Greenland. They most commonly roam in herds of two to three dozen, but as the world overtakes them these numbers are dwindling.

In this Year of the Ox, we should not err in disregarding the musk ox, just because it is not genetically linked to the oxen we see on farms in 2021. Highly valued because of its contribution to successful farming, the musk ox has had many positive characteristics attributed to it. It has survived through its resilience and protectiveness, which leads to an image of being steadfast, reliable, hardworking and honest. In today’s environment, I have decided to choose this particular “ox” as my new best friend.

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