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muskox and flowers 512 x 219

Inupiat Eskimos call it "omingmak" or "the bearded one." Shaggy and social, with an almost surreal quality, the muskox, more than any other animal, conjures up images of the cold, remote arctic. Seeing one takes you back . . . to the time of the mammoth, the short-faced bear, and the saber-toothed cat.

Muskoxen meander across the Arctic Refuge coastal plain. This was not always so. They disappeared from Alaska's north slope more than 100 years ago. They were brought back to the Refuge in 1969. Today muskoxen have expanded to areas both west and east of the Refuge.

As the only large mammals that live year-round on the Refuge coastal plain, muskoxen are uniquely adapted to a frigid environment. They have to be. Winter lasts nine months of the year, temperatures routinely drop to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, and winds blow almost constantly. Yet muskoxen stay warm. How? Their long, skirt-like guard hairs and thick "qiviut" wool provide insulation, and their square, short-legged bodies retain heat. The animals also don't move around much in winter to conserve energy.

In summer, muskoxen feed along rivers on a wide variety of plants. In winter they move to areas with low snow cover to feed on dried sedges and grasses.

Adult females, young animals, and some males live in social groups year-round. Other males are solitary in summer and live together in winter. When threatened, muskoxen run together to form a circle or semi-circle with their sharp horns facing outward. This defensive technique is often effective against predators.

The once vanished muskox brings a special majesty and aura to the Refuge. The Arctic Refuge protects habitats for this ice-age relic. It's one of the many reasons this special Refuge is important.

Additional information is available from the references listed in the partial bibliography of scientific research pertaining to the Refuge.

Page Photo Credits — All photos courtesy of USFWS unless otherwise noted.
Last Updated: Jun 16, 2015
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