Monday Reads: The Musk Oxen Edition

'Hibernation al fresco,' embracing winter head on

This page was published 13 years ago. Find the latest on Earthjustice’s work.

We’ve reached that time of year again.

I’m not talking about when the holiday decorations come out in force, or when gift shopping reaches a fevered, frenzied pitch. I’m talking about when it gets cold. When the wisdom of grizzly bears in their dark, quiet caves, and pikas in their cozy, warm burrows (hay piles close at paw), dawns on us shivering humans. When the going gets cold, really, the best thing to do is seek shelter in a warm, warm bed.

Well, unless of course, you’re a musk ox. Then you’ve got a whole different strategy all together.

What are musk oxen, you ask? Perhaps one of the lesser-known megafauna Earthjustice is working to protect, they are, in the words of a recent New York Times profile: “a blocky, short-legged, highly social ungulate with distinctively curved horns and long hair that looks like shag carpeting circa 1975.”

These guys, according to Dr. Jim Lawler of the National Park Service, “Their basic approach to winter management is: … stand there.”

The venerable musk oxen, hard at work on ‘hibernation al fresco.’ © Florian Schulz /

Needless to say, musk oxen are not ca. 1975. If they look like they were transported from the time of, say, woolly mammoths and those diorama exhibits you see in natural history museums, it’s because they were. Like our friends the sea turtles, musk oxen have been around for—literally—ages. And Earthjustice is on the job to make sure they stay around.

Once hunted to near extinction, today the majority of the 100,000-some remaining musk oxen can be found in the Arctic North America. Formidable and stoic looking, musk oxen have more than a few surprises under that shaggy coat:

  • Despite name and appearances, they are neither oxen nor buffalos. Their closest extant relatives are goats and sheep, but they have their genus (Ovibos) all to themselves.
  • Though they seem towering in photos, musk oxen are far from mammoth-sized; adult males reach about four feet tall.
  • Each winter, musk oxen sprout an undercoat called qiviut (remember that word for your next Scrabble game). Shed in the spring, qiviut is softer than cashmere.
  • During said winters, musk oxen practice “hibernation al fresco,” slowing their metabolic rate and weathering winter storms head on.

The elements aren’t the only thing musk oxen have to contend with. Having survived the last ice age, musk oxen are now facing a new foe: oil and gas development. Drilling, construction of accompanying roads, pipelines and towns, and transport vehicles traveling to and fro, have all had devastating effects on the animals, displacing them from their native habitats and disrupting the fragile Arctic ecosystem.

For years, Earthjustice has worked to ensure that the thriving and diverse Arctic is protected from the threat of rapid industrialization. In the latest development, BOEMRE (the agency formerly known as MMS) released a draft environmental impact statement on oil and gas development in the Chukchi Sea that was woefully lacking in critical information on basic biology and habitat use.

Earthjustice’s Arctic work to protect the musk oxen and all its Arctic brethern—polar bears, bowhead whales, migratory birds, and more—continues. So, bundle up under a warm blanket, grab a hot cocoa and learn more about Earthjustice’s work on the Arctic with the Visions of the Arctic campaign page and photo slideshow.

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Shirley undertakes sous chef duties on Earthjustice’s website, serving up interactive online features for our advocacy campaign and litigation work.

Opened in 1978, our Alaska regional office works to safeguard public lands, waters, and wildlife from destructive oil and gas drilling, mining, and logging, and to protect the region's marine and coastal ecosystems.