Popular Science Monthly/Volume 40/January 1892/The Musk Ox

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



OUR first introduction to the musk ox (Ovibos moschatus) carries us back over one hundred and fifty years, when M. Jeremie made his voyage to the northern parts of our continent, and, returning to Paris, took with him a sample of wool obtained from an animal he called the bœuf musqué. This name was also employed by Charlevoix, writing from Canada in 1744.

Scientists were thus made aware of the existence of a large mammal, which impressed them at once with its economic value; yet has it refused to come within the range of their keen observation with a persistence unequaled by any animal of its size and importance. It was many years later that the first scientific description appeared, given by Thomas Pennant from a skin sent to England by Samuel Hearne, and all acquaintance with the creature was derived from the arctic explorers (Drage, Dobbs, Ellis, Hearne, Parry, and others), who in general terms describe its appearance and give meager accounts of its habits. Dr. Richardson, in 1829, sums up the available information, and adds a few remarks of his own, which refer principally to the specimens then exhibited in the British Museum. Audubon, in his valuable history of the Quadrupeds of North America, published in 1854, is confined almost to a literal copy of Richardson's account; while so late as 1859 Spencer F. Baird, in his ponderous volume, the Mammals of North America, dismisses the subject with a reference of barely twenty lines. His words, however, are significant; for, while he admits that the animal furnishes a most interesting study, he laments our scant knowledge of this sturdy arctic inhabitant.

The special inquiry made three or four years ago by the Government of Canada, as to the resources of the Great Mackenzie Basin, furnishes data of utmost value: the enterprise of the modern press in ferreting out and bringing to our notice every item which concerns itself with the great questions of commerce and social economy, and the progress made in polar research during the last thirty years, contribute many facts in connection with the study of the musk ox; and we are enabled by the gathering and arranging of these to give in a more complete form the history of this animal.

In systematic zoölogy the place accorded to the musk ox is intermediate between those of the sheep (Ovis) and the ox (Bos), and for its special accommodation a new genus has been created, "Ovibos." Most writers notice its resemblance in many ways to the buffalo or bison, and it undoubtedly has much affinity with this species. A peculiar prominence is given in all early records to the description of the horns of the musk ox, which, though valuable to the Eskimos in the making of such commodities as cups, spoons, etc., by no means seem to be of so much importance, yet in every account the most minute particular of these appendages is repeated. Doubtless much of the character of the musk ox depends on the horns; still, it should be noted that the descriptions above referred to apply only to the bull, whose horns meet on the forehead, bend sharply down, and curve gracefully upward and outward; the cow's horns are more similar to those of the bison, or even may be compared to the horns of our domestic cattle. The skull of the bull musk ox is remarkable for the development of the eye-orbits, which project sufficiently beyond the plane of the frontal bones to compensate for the interruption the horns would otherwise make in the range of vision. The musk ox, however, does not seem to rely greatly on keenness of sight, far less on acuteness of hearing, for the ears are of small dimensions, and are completely covered by the heavy growth of fur about them. The organs of scent are evidently more highly developed, and they exact of the hunter his greatest cunning. Vasey says the hoof-prints resemble those of the barren-ground caribou so closely as to easily deceive the unaccustomed eye, and concludes a short description of the under parts of the foot with the illustration here reproduced. The external hoof is rounded, the internal pointed.

Much diversity of opinion exists as to the size and weight of the animal, and it is evident some statements have been made from very limited observation. Richardson compares the size of the musk ox to that of a Shetland pony, while others assert the dimensions to be quite equal to those of the bison; and whereas the weight has been given as from three to four hundred pounds in the one case, other records claim twice and even three times these figures as the weight of an adult specimen. The addition of from three to six inches of fur on the back, with hair flowing from the flanks to the length of from eighteen to twenty-four inches, gives an appearance vastly different from that of the bison, and the disproportionate shortness of the legs also tends to mislead; but, notwithstanding this, the measurements of the skin show the animal to be almost as large as the bison or buffalo, hence the latter approximation of weight is more correct.

In connection with the color of the hair, it should be observed that, while the summer pelage is usually brownish and corresponds with the descriptions generally given, in winter the animal's covering is a rich black on the head and shoulders, flanks and tail, the color shading beautifully into the milky-white disk on the back, known as the "saddle," while the face and the legs are prettily relieved with the whitish color.

The musk ox is gregarious, and although all early statements agree in estimating the herds as composed of from twenty to fifty individuals, later information greatly increases these figures, and frequent mention is made of herds numbering from two hundred to five hundred.

As recently as 1859 Baird says that, owing to the extreme scarcity of the musk ox, he knows of hut one specimen to be found in all the museums of the United States. This scarcity, however, might be accounted for more by the fact of obstacles in the way of entering the territories inhabited by the musk ox than by the actual rarity of the animal. From the evidence of fossil remains, it is clear that the musk ox long ago roamed westward to Siberia, and found its way eastward even to the British

Isles; but the accompanying map, exhibiting the boundaries of its present range, shows how restricted is its distribution. In the regions of perpetual snow it wanders, making its way northward in summer, being found at the highest points our expeditions have reached, and returning in winter to its southern haunts, which seldom touch latitude 60°. Over the rugged wilds the creature loves to ramble, and, although its appearance indicates awkwardness of locomotion, it is said to run fast and to climb precipitous cliffs with wonderful ease. Its home is the "barren grounds" wherein vegetation is limited almost to a few lichens and the stunted spruce to which they cling. On this meager diet the musk ox fattened and lived free from the assaults of almost every enemy; for the Eskimo alone penetrated its domain, being urged thither by hunger and the desire to obtain the valuable pelt.

The flesh is much coveted by the Eskimos, and explorers speak in the highest terms of the relish afforded by the meat of the cow and the calf, although the meat of the bull is pronounced as offensively musky. Till within the last five years, in our markets, the pelt was worth fifty dollars, and was accounted a rarity; but the extreme demand has led to more systematic methods of obtaining it; and whereas the total annual collection of pelts gathered by the Hudson Bay Company had not exceeded a few dozens, the figures have suddenly risen till the annual collection now is counted by thousands.

With the last remnants of the mercilessly slaughtered bison still in our markets, and the air filled with the protestations of theorists as to what might have been done to preserve those noble herds that thronged our prairies, we have history repeating itself under our very eyes in the case of the musk ox, and it is not venturing too rash a prophecy to state that the present ratio of increasing the catch will exhaust the supply within a decade.