Figure 1. Muskox bulls at Kangerlussuaq, West Greenland. Photo: Christine Cuyler
Figure 2. Muskox cow and calves at Ivittuut, West Greenland. Photo: Christine Cuyler
In North America and Greenland, Muskox (Ovibos moschatus ssp.) are known by the name umingmak/ (Inuinnaqtun/Inuktitut, Canada), umimmak (Greenland).
This can be translated somewhat as ”Bearded”, which is a reference to the characteristic long hair. But the name muskox was based on the European belief that they were a type of ox, and that its characteristic smell came from glands. None of those beliefs were true
Muskox are herbivore (Plant eaters), and are found throughout the arctic. There are two sub-species — O.m.wardi, which we have in Greenland, and O.m. moschatus, which is principally found in northern Canada (i.e. The Northwest Territories and Nunavut.)
Muskox are the only members of the species Ovibos (Tribe Ovibovini, Subfamily Caprinae; Family Bovidae). Its closest relative is a goral, an animal that looks like a goat that is found in Asia.
The world’s muskox population had come close to extinction on several occasions. Genetic analysis has shown both historic and archaeological evidence that muskox have had to pass through several ”bottlenecks“ through a long time period. They disappeared from Europe about 10,000 years ago, and from Russia one to two thousand years ago. At the close of the 1800’s they were practically gone from Alaska and North West Canada. The present expansion throughout all of the arctic is partially due to en expansion of the endemic population, and the countless times during the last centuries that men have moved oxen to regions which were grasslands, or were well suited, but just not populated. But even today Muskoxen face challenges due to its minimal and narrow genetic base.
With a shoulder height of 150 cm, Muskoxen are short and powerful. Grown males can weigh up to 320 kilo, while females are closer to 200 kilo. Muskox are well suited to the arctic winters. Their fur coat is in two layers. A thick inner coat of wool (qiviut) and a heavy outer coat of long cover hair. The ”qiviut” is shed in the summer.
Muskoxen are cud chewers, and their food is made up a variety of grasses, half grasses, and shoots from different plants. Their digestive tract is suited to this relatively difficult to digest food type. In comparison to reindeer, which have a more specialized diet, Muskox have a longer digestive tract, which give the food more time to pass through, which again makes it possible use food of a lower quality. But it does require Muskox to use more time chewing cud. Peaceful surroundings are therefore necessary for them to be able exploit all the foods available to them.
In comparison to reindeer antlers, the horns of a muskox remain in place all their lives. Both sexes have horns, and the horns reflect the sex of the animal. The males’ horns grow together across the front, forming a heavy brow plate. The females horns are smaller and do not grow together. During mating season, when the males are fighting to impress the females, they go literally head to head, and the sound of the colliding brow plates can be heard for miles around.
The mating season of the Muskox varies between August, September, and October. Pregnancy takes about 8 months (236-250 days), cows give birth to one calf, in rare cases two. The sexual maturity of a young cow is determined by her body weight. A mature cow must have at least 22% fat content to have just a 50% chance of becoming pregnant. That is about three time more than the case for reindeer. If they are well nourished, then cows can give birth at two years of age, and every year thereafter. But normally a cow will be 3 years at the first birth, and then gives birth with 2 to 3 years between. This is likely because it can take a whole summer to regain weight loss and fat after a pregnancy and a period of milk production.
The obvious basis for mortality in the Muskox population includes hunger during winter when the snow is too deep, or a layer of ice that has allowed predators such as wolves and grizzly bears to catch the oxen, and also sickness and hunters can cut into the herd. With respect to predators, and in contrast to the rest of the world, in Greenland there is a noteworthy lack of them. And yet, in North- and East Greenland an in-migration of some wolves has taken place
Distribution in Greenland
Endemic muskox are only found in North- and Northeast Greenland, including the area around Thule in North West Greenland, but their presence in West Greenland is the result of people moving the animals (Translocation), see figure 3. Today there are 13 herds of Muskox in Greenland (Figure 4)
Muskox herds— West side of Greenland (from north to south)
- Inglefield Land – A mix of endemic and newly arrived Muskox, 14 total in 1986. The Home Rule’s hunting and catch quotas apply.
- Cape Atholl – Established in 1986 with seven Muskoxen moved in from Kangerlussuaq, West Greenland. Home Rule’s hunting and catch quotas apply.
- Sigguk / Svartenhuk – Established in 1991 with 31 Muskoxen moved in from Kangerlussuaq, West Greenland. Home Rule’s hunting and catch quotas apply.
- Naternaq / Lersletten – Established in 1993 with 31 Muskoxen taken from Kangerlussuaq, West Greenland. Home Rule’s hunting and catch quotas apply.
- Sisimiut – A natural expansion of the herd from the Kangerlussuaq herd and a bit south. Home Rule’s hunting and catch quotas apply.
- Kangerlussuaq – Established in 1963-65, with 27 Muskoxen taken from North East Greenland.
Home Rule’s hunting and catch quotas apply.
- Nuuk – Natural in-migration southwards until 1998 to Maniitsoq, and inside Nuuk fjord. The source is the Kangerlussuaq herd. In 2019 the herds was still very little, and no individuals were observed during reindeer population count and herd structure observations by helicopter. This area is still off limits for hunting.
- Ivittuut – Established in 1987 with 15 Muskoxen moved in from Kangerlussuaq, West Greenland. Home Rule’s hunting and catch quotas apply.
- Nanortalik – Established in 2014 with 19 Muskoxen taken from the Ivittuut herd, West Greenland. Still off limits for hunting.
Muskox herds – North and Northeast side of Greenland (from north to south)
- Washington Land – Endemic, off limits for hunting.
- National park – Endemic and off limits for hunting; contains the Zackenberg subpopulation.
- Jameson Land – Endemic. Home Rule’s hunting and catch quotas apply.
- Indre Kangertittivaq – Endemic. Home Rule’s hunting and catch quotas apply.
Figure 3. The origin of Muskoxen in Greenland.Endemic herds (blue) are found only in North and Northeast Greenland. Herds that have wandered in, or appeared through expansion from a herd that appeared by splitting off from an existing herd (orange) are found on the western side of Greenland. Herds in Inglefield Land in the areas of Thule-Qaanaaq, Northwest Greenland, are a mix of both.
Figure 4. 2019 overview of 13 Muskox herds in Greenland.Endemic herds are shown in blue, translocated herds in orange, while herds that are a result of expansion from established herds are shown in green. Kangerlussuaq Muskox were the first established herd of animals translocated in Greenland. (Inglefield Land has both endemic and translocated animals).
Status in Greenland
In 2019 the entire aggregate herd of Muskoxen totaled approximately 39,427, which is about 23.4% of the global total of Muskoxen. Endemic Muskox of the species O.m. wardi, traditionally lived in the entire Northwest, North, and Northeast coast of Greenland. The migration to Greenland took place by passing over the winter ice at the only 20km wide Nares Straits, which separates Elsmere Island- Canada from Greenland. With the exception of Inglefield Land, Muskoxen apparently disappeared from Northwest Greenland (Hall land, Washington Land, Inglefield Land, Prudhoe Land, Cape Atholl,) within the last 100 years. In 1986 Muskoxen were translocated to Inglefield Land, Prudhoe Land (Mac Cormic Fjord) and Cape Atholl. In 2015 Muskoxen were again observed from a boat both on Washington and Hall Land. It is not known if these are descendants from a small herd which had always been there, or an expansion from Inglefield Land, or even a re-colonization from Canada.
With respect to Northeast Greenland (Including the Scoresbysund District), in the 1800’s the figures for whale catch, and the expedition ship’s logbooks rarely described Muskox observations before 1870, which would indicate a low number of animals. By 1941, based on expeditions and catch numbers, the estimate of Muskoxen in Northeast Greenland was 17,000.
In 1990 the number was estimated at 9,000 to 12,500 Musk Oxen, with the majority found in Jameson Land.
Muskoxen in Jameson Land probably reached their maximum numbers in about 1985, and expansion in the 1900’s revealed that a sub-area, The Colorado Valley, was home to many Muskoxen. Three bird counts, in 2008, 2009, and 2016 found few Muskoxen in Jameson Land. Additional counts were focused on birds, but they indicated a possible reduction in the herd which should be more closely looked at. Otherwise, overall development of Muskox in Northeast Greenland is unknown today, except in the Zackenberg area, where they topped out about 10 years ago, with a decline afterwards.
In contrast to Greenland’s Northwest, North, and Northeast coast, Muskoxen where never endemic on the west or the south east coast. They were never present. On the west coast, the massive presence of glaciers and lack of land in the Melville Bay area was an effective barrier to the spread southwards from the Thule-Qaanaaq area (Inglefield Land, Cape Atholl). People are the reason behind today’s Muskox Herd in West Greenland. In the 1960’s, 27 young Muskox were taken from Northeast Greenland, and translocated to Kangerlussuaq (southern Strømfjord,) an area around 67° N. Latitude. The animals did very well, and the herd grew. Between 2000 and 2006, minimum counts, in only some areas, observed normally about 4000 to 5000 animals. In March of 2018 we had the first long distance sampling by helicopter over the entire Kangerlussuaq area. The estimated population was 20,000 Muskoxen. Despite the 2018 estimate, in those areas accessible to hunters, local knowledge and minimum counts, indicate a reduction in the herd since 2006.
The Sisimiut Muskox herd is located just north of Kangerlussuaq area, and at the change of the century naturally expanded their numbers. The count in 2018 gave an estimate of about 2,622 Muskoxen in the Sisimut herd.
As the Kangerlussuaq herd was well established, seven additional translocations of Muskox were undertaken. In 1986, three areas in the Thule-Qaanaaq area received young Muskox, all taken from the Kangerlussuaq: Cape Atholl (n=7), MacCormick Fjord (n=6) and Inglefield Land (n=14).
At that time there was still an unknown number of endemic Muskox in Inglefield Land. In 1999, the estimated number of Muskox in Inglefield Land was about 270 animals. In 2017 a minimal count of the Cape Atholl area found about 212 animals. At the same time, the Muskox herd in the Mac Cormick Fjord disappeared almost simultaneously.
Translocation of Muskox in West Greenland did not stop with the Thule-Qaanaaq event in 1986. In the following year, 1987, 15 young Muskoxen were taken from Kangerlussuaq and translocated to Ivittuut. In 2019 there were estimated to be 800-1,000 Muskoxen in Ivittuut. That is a reduction from ten years ago, but expected given the Game Departments focus on limiting the density of Muskox in the relatively small area of Ivittuut (430 km²). In 1991, 31 young Muskox were taken from Kangerlussuaq and translocated to Sigguk/Svartenhuk.
The only Sigguk minimum count in 2002 found 193 animals. In 1993 an additional 31 young Muskox were translocated from Kangerlussuaq, but this time to Naternaq /Lersletten.
The Naternaq minimum count in 2004 found 112 Muskoxen. In 2014, 19 Muskox were taken from Ivittuut and moved farther south to Nanortalik, which is not far from Cape Farewell, Greenland’s southern tip. Observations in 2017 and 2018 have found calves. The future might find new translocations taking place. Discussions are being held concerning translocations around Qeqertarsuaq Island/Disko Island.
More information can be found in Cuyler et al. 2019. Muskox, status recent variation and uncertain future. AMBIO Special Issue DOI: 10.1007/s13280-019-01205-x
Greenland’s Muskox herds are managed in accordance with the legislation passed by the Home Rule. Except for the herd in Nanortalik, and protected herds in Northeast Greenland’s National Park, all other Muskox herds in Greenland are under the regulations of the Home Rule’s catch regulations. There are ongoing discussions and changes with respect to the duration of the hunting season, times, hunting areas, size of quotas, etc. You can find information at https://naalakkersuisut.gl
Advice from Greenland Institute of Natural Resources
The advice given to the Home Rule from the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources concerning the exploitation of the herds is backed up by analysis of the herds, their size, the density of vegetation, the structure of the herds, and the birth rate of calves (Number of calves per 100 cows.)
Research and Monitoring
Greenland’s Muskox counts are irregular, and rarely due to any lack of funds. They are often Minimal counts, which are known in America as ”Total Counts.”
These are typically done from hill tops, in the winter from snow mobiles, in the summer from boats and hikes in the field, and sometimes from fixed wing aircraft. Minimum counts carried out by the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources are always planned and carried out in cooperation with local officers and professional hunters, or with the local population (Figure 5, 6). In contrast with herd estimates, the result of minimum counts gives us the real number of animals observed without the use of any estimation. It is understood that there are always some animals in an area than cannot be observed, and that covering a terrain is done in a manner that prevents counting an animal twice. One advantage with making counts from hill tops is that we can also observe the herd structure, which can give us insight to the herd’s future trends, for example, the numbers of new calves in the herd.
Figure 6. Game officer conducting a minimum count of the Ivittuut Musk Ox. Photo: Christine Cuyler
The only comprehensive herd estimate for Muskox using distance sampling took place in 2018, and only covered the West Greenlandic Kangerlussuaq Muskox herd. This was done together with the Kangerlussuaq-Sisimiut reindeer herd count in the same region. It was done using a helicopter, at low altitudes over the hills, low speed, using experienced observers.
The sampling method used:
The samplings design used systematic parallel lines, divided into three sub-areas for the Northern Region- Hunt area 2 (Figure 7). The distance for each observation of an animal was obtained using ”Bin distances”, for example 0, 50, 100, 200, 300, 400, 500, 750, 1.500 m from the line.
Additional information can be found in the technical Reports from Greenland Institute of Natural Resources (nr. 31, 75, 96)
Figure 7. Systematic lines for distance sampling for counting in the Northern regions in March 2018. The line colours (blue, yellow, mauve) denote three sub-areas in the Northern Region. The North region is also known as hunt area 2.
Catch report schemas
In connection with hunting of Muskox in Greenland, the individual hunter fills out a report to be returned to the Game Department. These reports give valuable information on the number of animals shot. This data can also give information on the health of the different herds
The total number of Muskox reported shot each year in Greenland is made public in Piniarneq, an informational publication about hunting and hunt licensing administered by Greenland’s Home rule
State of Health
Overgrown hooves had been observed at Cape Atholl in the 1990’s. Unfortunately, research gave no simple answer to the problem, and today that problem seems to have been solved by nature. Further information can be found at Technical Reports from Greenland Institute of Natural Resources (nr. 41).
The condition can have negative effects on the survival of calves. The institute is at this time including this in a PhD. study, in which we shall study and map which diseases are found in the Muskox populations in Greenland
Figure 8. Musk Ox bulls at Kangerlussuaq, West Greenland. Photo: Christine Cuyler