Closer Look: Muskox
Pump 3, Dalton Highway, AK
June 7, 2019
Video of the Day:
Muskox (Ovibos moschatus) near Trans-Alaska Pipeline Pump 3. These animals rub against the shrubbery of the tundra during spring and summer months to shed their inner coat layer, called qiviut.
Earlier this week, Jason Dobkowski (lab manager and Toolik veteran) drove us up the Dalton Highway to Trans-Alaska Pipeline Pump 3 to view a herd of muskox that has been seen there. This was an amazing experience, and it prompted me to dive deeper to learn more about this animal.
More closely related to sheep and goats than to the ox, the muskox is quite odd-looking. Its face resembles that of a cow, the exception being the large horn assembly, which suggests a large crop of hair parted down the middle. The body resembles that of a bison, with a thick coat of brown fur.
The name “muskox” references the animal’s distinctive odor, secreted by males during rut season. The smell likely comes from a class of compounds called γ-lactones (gamma lactones), secreted via urine and spread over the fur as the animal moves through the brush. The smell has been described as “light, sweetish, [and] ethereal.” 1
I learned from Jason that the muskox has a bi-layered coat, and the inner layer (called qiviut) is shed in the spring and summer months. To aid the shedding process, these animals are often seen rubbing up against the brush of the tundra, almost as if they are itching themselves (see “Video of the Day” above).
Qiviut is both warmer and stronger than the wool of a sheep, and as a result, it is a prized material for making scarves, hats, and sweaters.2 It is very expensive - a brief online search yielded prices up to $70 per ounce!
When viewing the muskox near Pump 3, we were able to follow their trail by noting the location of shed qiviut. Qiviut picking is a popular Sunday pastime amongst researchers at Toolik, and I collected a fairly large wad to bring back to my classroom.