"Musk Oxen Live to Tell a Survivors’ Tale"

"Among the various large, charismatic and visibly winterized mammals that one might choose as a mascot for life in the Arctic belt, polar bears are, let’s face it, too hackneyed, reindeer too Rudolph, caribou too Sarah Palin’s target practice, and woolly mammoths too extinct.

There’s a better choice, though few may have heard of it. According to Arctic biologists, the quintessential example of megafaunal fortitude in the face of really bad weather is the musk ox, or Ovibos moschatus, a blocky, short-legged, highly social ungulate with distinctively curved horns and long hair that looks like shag carpeting circa 1975.

Ovibos’s common name is only partly justified. The males do emit a musky cologne during mating season, but the animal is not an ox. Nor, despite its back-of-the-nickel silhouette, is it a type of buffalo either. Its closest living relations are thought to be goats and sheep, but taxonomically and metaphorically, the musk ox is in an icy cubicle of its own. Once abundant throughout the northern latitudes worldwide, today they are found only in Arctic North America, Greenland and pockets of Siberia and Scandinavia. The musk ox is a holdover from the Pleistocene, the age of the giant mammals memorialized in natural history murals everywhere — the mammoths and mastodons, the saber-toothed cats, the giant ground sloths, the 400-pound beavers. Yet while a vast majority of the frost-fitted bigfoots disappeared at the end of the last ice age, 10,000 years ago, Ovibos hung on, as stubbornly as the ox it is not."

Natalie Angier reports for the New York Times December 13, 2010.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010