Musk ox's jacket for the extreme arctic winter

Male and female musk ox with baby in the arctic.

From the treeless Arctic tundra and snowfields comes what some believe is the world’s finest wool, surpassing that from the Kashmir goat.

From what animal is such “golden fleece” obtained?

Why, from the musk ox, also called the polar ox.

Eskimos call it by another name, umingmaq, meaning the “bearded one,” because the musk ox’s chocolate-brown hair hangs down over his entire body, giving him a shaggy appearance.

But it is not this outer hair that is the source of such fine fleece.

The musk ox has concealed under his long-hair coat a thick undergarment of exquisite, silky wool that is shed in summer.

It is this wool undercoat that keeps the musk ox impervious to the extreme winter cold of his northern habitat.

Thus, even though his body temperature always stays around 100 degrees Fahrenheit none of this heat escapes to melt the snow when he lies down.

Physical facts

Mr. Musk Ox has a short neck and a large head, and he may weigh some 800 pounds.

He has massive, sharp-pointed horns that curve downward and then hook upward at the tip.

The cows and young also have horns, but they are smaller in size.

Because of these formidable horns one Arctic explorer called the musk ox the “world’s most dangerous game animal.”

Though the musk ox has short, stout legs, he is agile and travels faster than a man can run.

His white-stockinged legs end in wide split hoofs especially designed to make them sure-footed when climbing rocky prominences.

The rim of the hoof has a sharp cutting edge useful for pawing through the shallow, frozen snow cover on windswept slopes to reach the sparse grass and low-growing plants on which they feed.

The musk ox is not really an ox but is a relative of the chamois of Europe, and so is a kind of goat antelope.

Unlike the musk deer, the musk ox does not really have specialized musk glands.

But during the breeding season, the males do give off a musklike odor.

On Ellesmere Island in the high Arctic where about 4,000 of them live, sunlight is absent from November to the end of February.

Interestingly, the musk ox’s eyes are equipped with an abundance of large, sensory rods for night vision.

On the other hand, for the long days of Arctic summer he has built-in sunglasses!

The pupils of his eyes, rectangular in shape, can close to the tiniest slit, reminding one of the wooden sunglasses with only very narrow slits in the center that Eskimo people once made to protect their eyes from snow blindness.

During a storm, a herd of musk oxen crowd together with hindquarters to the wind, sheltering the calves within a furry fence.

They will sometimes stand together for days, as long as the storm is blowing, their massive bodies protecting the calves.