The Musk–Ox: An Arctic Survivor
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8
The musk-ox is an animal that has a great deal about it that is fascinating. Thousands of years ago, as the glacial ice retreated, the musk-ox followed it north to its current habitat. After all, it wanted to stay in its own environment. Interestingly enough, the appearance of this animal seems to mirror the other-worldliness of its home.
Growing to approximately five feet in height at the shoulders, and weighing up to 700 pounds, these animals appear formidable. Unlike the rhino or bison, however, the musk-ox seems to be, at the worst, a strange amalgamation of a variety of animals, or, something like an oversized Muppet character! On their rather large head is a set of horns that curve something like ten-speed bicycle handlebars. Over their eyes, these horns flatten out and meet in the middle, creating a type of helmet that has been known to withstand a bullet fired at fairly close range. Covering their body is a mass of long hair, perhaps the longest known on all wild animals. It hangs down around the animals'hooves and gives them that embarrassed, "wet dog" look. Because these animals live in such inhospitable environs, it was actually thought for a long time that the musk-ox possessed short legs, when in fact it was simply the long hair covering a majority of the animals'legs.
This long hair is one of the musk-ox's ways of dealing with severe Arctic weather. In the Arctic summer, when a variety of bugs chew, bite, and generally torment the other animals of this region, the musk-ox's long hair provides a type of armor against these pests. In the winter, it is estimated that the long hair keeps these animals a few degrees above the freezing point, no matter how cold the temperature of the air might be. In fact, one of the reasons the musk-ox maintains some of its mystery is due to the difficulty it experiences in our own environment. There are not a great deal of them in our zoos. Originally, Westerners tried to use the musk-ox as a source of wool. This was a relatively short-lived experiment however, for the animals would die of pneumonia when shaved.
There are not a lot of animals in the Arctic that would satisfy the musk-ox's appetite, so it has evolved into a plant-eating animal. Because a plant diet can be difficult for the musk-ox to digest, it literally does what we are figuratively doing when we say are "ruminating," or giving thought to something. Musk-ox are classified in the suborder Ruminantia, which means they are able to pre-digest their food in certain sections of their stomach, regurgitate it back up into their mouths for further chewing, and ultimately pass it back through the stomach. Thank goodness that is not what we mean when we are, say, "chewing on the idea" of traversing the Arctic.
The Polar Research and Cold Region Technology has a website that is "loaded" with great additional resources for Internet surfers. http://www.luth.se/foundations/coldtech/coldeel.html