Muskoxen are quite interesting animals who have been around for ages. In fact, their species have been known to have existed in prehistoric times and shared the world with wooly mammoths and sabertooth tigers!
Having been around for at least 2.5 million years, these muskoxen traveled across the Bering Strait land bridge into North America roughly 2 million years ago.
They are some of the only megafaunas from the arctic region that have lasted this long – apart from reindeer – as other animals like wooly mammoths, sabertooth tigers, and mastodons eventually began to die out.
However, the muskoxen have had their close call with extinction as well. About 10,000 years ago, their populations started to decrease as the Earth warmed up and the human populations moved further north. Then, in the late 1800s, they were hunted to near extinction. Thankfully, conservation efforts across Alaska, Russia, and Scandinavia have been in the works to keep their numbers from plummeting.
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As of the present moment, it is estimated that there are 170,000 muskoxen left throughout the world – a fair jump from the estimated 135,000 back in 2008.
It is good news in some parts of the world, where their numbers are steadily rising. For example, in Alaska, the muskoxen are estimated to be more than 5,000 strong, a decent climb from the 30 animals who were reintroduced back in the 1930s.
However, their numbers are still dipping in places such as Canada and Greenland, where the animals once had their largest herd populations. In Banks Island, Canada, the muskoxen numbers have gone down from 70,000 in the 1990s to just under 15,000 in 2014.
The reason for the decreasing numbers is due to the warming climate as prolonged periods of warm weather have brought rain rather than snow to the places where only snow would fall. What this means is that when the cold weather finally comes, there is a layer of ice that forms over the vegetation that muskoxen depend on during the winter months. With the climate changes becoming more and more unpredictable, the muskoxen conservation and re-population efforts are becoming more of a worry.
The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is particularly concerned for these big beasts as they consume a number of different plants that include grasses, sedges, forbs, and woody plants. But one of the issues that the center has raised is the fact that these animals aren’t that adept at digging through heavy snow, so during winter, their habitats are pretty restrictive – confined to areas that have shallow snow accumulations.
Another issue facing these animals is that they’re known to be typically slow at breeding, producing a calf about every two to three years. But they are pretty intrepid, nonetheless.
Their natural predators are the arctic wolf, as well as grizzly bears and occasionally polar bears, though they will bravely defend themselves when they are under threat.
It has been observed that the calves are usually the ones picked off by predators, so when the herd is under attack, they will flee to higher ground before forming a protective circle in which all the adults have their backs to one another and face out with their horns at the ready. The little claves are usually right beside their mothers.
Hopefully these animals will continue to see a rise in their numbers, and they will make a full comeback. What do you think of the muskoxen comeback? Let us know!
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