The musk ox is an ancient animal that is unfamiliar to most people. We got to see these incredible creatures at the Large Animal Research Station in Fairbanks and also the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. They hail from the Pleistocene period, when they walked the earth with the wooly mammoth, saber-toothed cat, and giant ground sloth. Numbering about 150,000 worldwide, the largest population of musk ox can now be found in Canada. They became extinct in Alaska by the late 1800s and were reintroduced in the 1930s from wild herds in Greenland. Musk ox currently number about 3000 in Alaska.
adult male musk ox at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
An adult male stands about six feet at the shoulder and weighs up to 1000 pounds. Despite their name, they are not oxen and do not have musk glands. The Inuit peoples of the far north call them Oomingmak, meaning “one with skin like a beard”. Based on appearance, it is frequently assumed that they are a close relative of the bison, buffalo, or yak. But they are actually more closely related to sheep and goats.
juvenile musk ox
taking a mid-day nap at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
These animals have adapted to frigid temperatures with a layer of downy underwool called qiviut (pronounced kiv-ee-ute). The fibers are extremely fine, soft, and warm, thus protecting the musk ox in temperatures less than minus 40 degrees. The qivuit is shed each spring to keep the animals cool in the summer and collected to support a thriving cottage industry. Thanks to a cooperative of native Alaskan knitters, you can buy hand knit products made from 100% qivuit. The items are pricey, but take into consideration the rarity of the raw material, its superior warmth characteristics, and crafting by skilled artisans. Qiviut is eight times warmer than wool, incredibly soft, light in weight, and easy to clean. You might want to consider adding a qivuit clothing article to your Christmas wish list!