During prehistoric times, the muskox was distributed around the globe. Since the last ice age, muskoxen have died off in Europe and Asia, mostly due to fluctuations in the climate. Indigenous populations now only live in Canada and Greenland. Muskoxen disappeared from Alaska during the late 1800s.
In an effort to reintroduce the species to Alaska, 34 young muskoxen were captured in Greenland in 1930 and brought to the Fairbanks area. The animals were then transferred to Nunivak Island, where by the late 1960s there were over 700 muskoxen. Small populations were transplanted back to the mainland of Alaska and these have done well. Muskoxen also have been introduced to areas in Siberia where they lived until after the last Ice Age. Now there is an estimated 4,000 muskoxen in Alaska and an estimated 140,000 muskoxen alive in Alaska, Greenland, Canada and Siberia combined.
Petra, a female muskox. Photo courtesy of E Boone
Muskox are a true arctic species, living in the far north year round. Their thick layer of underwool, or qiviut, keeps them warm in the harsh cold of winter. Qiviut is softer than cashmere. It is harvested at LARS each spring and sold to be spun into yarn for knitting. Proceeds of these sales are returned to the farm for care of the animals and improvement of the facilities.
Muskoxen depend on each other for protection against predators such as wolves and bears. Muskoxen rely on their horns for defense. When threatened, muskoxen face the predator with their massive horns. If a pack of wolves surrounds the muskoxen, the animals will make a defensive circle. Males also use their horns when fighting to establish dominance or for the right to breed cows. Males fight by running at each other and bashing their heads together. Their horns protect them from injury.
Caribou and reindeer are closely related. Caribou are the wild version of the species native to North America. There are about four million caribou on the continent of North America. Reindeer are the domesticated version of the species.
Reindeer were domesticated in northern Scandinavia by Native people over 2,000 years ago. They raised reindeer to provide food and transportation. Reindeer were brought to Alaska around 1900 in an attempt to provide Native Alaskans with a stable food source.
Caribou are unique because they are the only member of the deer family in which both the males and the females have antlers. Antlers, unlike horns, are grown and shed each year. Male caribou use their antlers to establish dominance during mating season, like the muskox.
The outer winter hair of the caribou is filled with little air chambers. These provide additional insulation for the caribou. The trapped air in the hairs also acts like a life preserver and help keep the caribou afloat while in the water. Caribou often have to cross raging arctic rivers in their migrations and this insulation and floatation help their survival.