How Are Muskoxen Faring in a Changing Climate?

Though not endangered, many of the world’s muskoxen populations face threats, from excessive hunting to Arctic ice melt, and even to concussions from headbutting. Muskoxen have been a valuable source of food and wool for humans for thousands of years.

This episode of “The Sweaty Penguin” investigates the issues muskoxen face, and how humans can better conserve them moving forward. Featuring special guest Dr. Astrid Andersen, Associate Professor of Culture and Learning at Aalborg University.


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ETHAN: Welcome to episode 108 of The Sweaty Penguin: Antarctica’s Hottest Podcast. I’m your host, Ethan Brown. First off I am so so sorry for the delta in getting this episode out, that’s the first time this has happened in two and a half years. Basically I was moving this last week from Orange County to Los Angeles. Really really busy week, packing up, cleaning, moving, unpacking, setting up, and on top of all that our sound editor got sick. So I hope she get’s better soon, but I am actually now in my new apartment which came out great, and I am editing this myself for the first time ever in Sweaty Penguin history as well. So I hope you enjoy, I hope it comes out alright, and ya we’ll get into it in a moment. But the other thing I wanted to let you know, the Sweaty Penguin was just selected as a finalist for the 2022 Signal listeners choice awards. This is the first year this award is being done. They are run by the Webbys, where we got an official honor earlier this year that we were really excited about. But this award requires audience voting, so what I want you to do, head to any of our social media pages, we’ve got the links, go vote for the sweaty penguin and we’re up against some really great other podcasts. I think we have a lead right now, but we really need your support to get us over the edge. I believe voting closes December 22nd. So go over there, Vote for the Sweaty Penguin, and let’s see if we can win this thing, we really appreciate it. Today we’re talking about the muskox: also known as an ox that Elon Musk purchased for 44 billion dollars. You know, he wanted to put his name on it.

ETHAN: Now, you might be wondering, do we at The Sweaty Penguin just pull random animals out of a hat and research how they’re affected by climate change? Yeah, pretty much. It’s why I laugh when people ask me “are you ever scared you’re going to run out of topics?” Like, do you know how many animals are left to do? It’s been 108 episodes and we haven’t even gotten to polar bears yet! We’re going to talk about muskoxen today though, which is an interesting pick for an episode since unlike many of our other animal episodes, muskoxen are not listed as endangered. In fact, they’ve survived many climates, even going back to the Ice Age when a female muskox named Vera was nearly swindled by a con artist armadillo into starting a diet. You may have seen her in the documentary Ice Age: The Meltdown. That said, muskoxen populations which had been increasing for several years may now be at risk again, facing threats from hunting to Arctic ice melt to even concussions from headbutting. That’s right, muskoxen and NFL players have a lot more in common than you think! So today, we’ll discuss what threats muskoxen face, why they matter, and where we go from here.

ETHAN: The Sweaty Penguin is presented by Peril and Promise: a public media initiative from The WNET Group in New York, reporting on the issues and solutions around climate change. You can learn more at If you want to take two minutes to help out The Sweaty Penguin, you can either leave us a five star rating and review or join our Patreon at Doing either earns you a special shoutout at the end of the show; joining the Patreon gets you merch, bonus content, and a whole lot more.

ETHAN: [Christmas Moonlight] But first, what is a muskox? The muskox looks pretty similar to Jimmy Neutron’s mom: it’s a long-haired animal with a short tail, slight shoulder hump, and of course, cool brown horns. I guess it’s no wonder they’re not endangered given that they’re… horny. [ba dum tss] Today, they can be found in northern Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Their main predators are wolves and grizzly bears, and as herbivores, their main food would be grasses, sedges, woody plants, and sugar cookie almond milk lattes. Fine, I made up the last one, but come on, I think they’d like them! Who doesn’t want a seasonal drink! Now you might be wondering why it’s called a muskox, and for that, I’ll bring in this week’s expert, Dr. Astrid Andersen. She is an Associate Professor of Culture and Learning at Aalborg University. Here’s what she had to say.

ANDERSEN: The muskox in itself, which in Greenlandic and other Inuit languages is called “umingmak,” which means sort of the bearded or have hairy one is very strange animal that sort of sort of defers or challenges categories and naming. So, the word muskox in itself is kind of a error or erroneous. Because it is not a the animal is not an ox. It is more sort of genetically related to a goat or sheep and there’s nothing Muskie, You might say, about it. The smell it’s it has a sort of very particular smell during summer time but yeah it’s not related to two other animals that we relate to musk. So So there’s something really interesting about how that animal has been categorized and defined and named. That already says a lot about human relations to that animal.

ETHAN: [Moonlight Caring] Muskoxen are not smelly. In fact, musk is technically a scent secreted from a specific musk gland, and unlike muskrats or musk deer, muskoxen don’t have that gland. Sure, they have a distinct scent in the summer, but who among us doesn’t? Are we really going to bully these creatures for one missed shower? Learn more about how you can help us end muskox bullying by calling 1-800-MUSKOXEN-SMELL-LIKE-APPLE-PIE. It’s a lot of digits, but it’s important to make these species feel heard. Or smelled. [END MUSIC]

ETHAN: Honestly, I’m only half exaggerating though. Humans and muskoxen have a rocky relationship going back millennia. As an animal that can weigh up to 800 pounds, muskoxen were a great source of food for humans living in Arctic regions. And not only that, but according to Dr. Andersen, they were really easy to hunt.

ANDERSEN: They are often standing in flux so they don’t move as fast as say a caribou or a wolf. So they are rather easy to hunt. They don’t move very fast. So if you come with an expedition ship and you’re hungry, you’ve been traveling for weeks if you see like 1220 muskox and you have, you can easily have food for the next month’s, right? So these kind of these were human muskox, Encounters of different kinds that were of course. Also exploitative in some way.

ETHAN: Adult muskoxen run up to 37 miles per hour, which, while 10 miles per hour faster than Usain Bolt, is on the slower side compared to some of the food alternatives in the region. So what ancient hunters would do is hold the muskox back, give Usain a bit of a head start, and then, you know, he’d have a shot to tackle the muskox and make the kill. Because muskoxen were such a vital food resource, though, records show a lot of human migration was actually directly related to muskox migration.

ANDERSEN: So the reason why our project is called muskox Pathways is actually sort of reference to a very early 1910. Study of Inuit people entering Greenland from northern Canada, across it of the ice bridge and studies of some early settlements across the Very northern [00:15:09] part of the Greenland no north-northeast in what is called Pure land. And so these settlement early settlements have caused sort of theories. Well, what you find in these early settlements is which date sort of 4500 years back, you have a lot of bone material from Musk Oxen, which is not seen. Seen in other parts of Greenland. So that resulted in the theory of in this particular, part of green and the humans who entered who migrated into a Greenland and stayed there for some time live primarily of  Musk Oxen, which on in other parts of Inuit regions. And also in Greenland, you have sort of a lot of sea, mammal, bone material, right? So, it’s more mixed The sort of food scheme of food system that you can identify. But but in those Northern Region you have, yeah, a lot of bone material and also broken bones, which means that people were sort of living from the stuff inside of Bones which I right now don’t remember what is called in English, but so there’s this very early relation between muskox and humans and the theory is that Musk Oxen Were part of one of the factors who sort of pulled Musk Oxen, migrated first, and then pulled the humans in after them, others sort of think of it.

ETHAN: It makes sense — you gotta go where the food is going. If cheeseburgers were moving to Greenland, I’d definitely follow. But humans never really let up on our toxic relationship with them. In fact, by the mid-1800s, muskoxen were extinct in Alaska likely due to hunting by natives, explorers, and whalers, and in the early 1900s, the global muskoxen population was estimated to be as low as 5,000 animals, putting them in danger of total extinction. Even worse than that, in northern Canada, the name of the muskox in the Indigenous language of Woods Cree translated to “ugly moose” and “ugly bison.” I know, that’s not threatening their extinction, but come on! First they’re smelly, now they’re ugly? [sigh]

ETHAN: [Moonlight Caring] Muskoxen are not ugly. If you’re comparing them to moose and bison, they may even be beautiful. You’ve seen the studies — women love facial hair. That’s why I always keep some stubble even though it’s weird and patchy. Now I’m not saying muskoxen are a 10, but like, a 7 maybe? Plus, it’s not all about your appearance. Your personality, sense of humor, ambition, all play a role in what we think of you. So let’s stop holding muskoxen to unrealistic beauty standards, or telling cuties like Vera to go on a diet. Call 1-800-MUSKOXEN-ARE-HOTTER-THAN-JASON-MOMOA and learn more about how you can help these species feel seen. And by seen, I mean googled, obviously. [END MUSIC]

ETHAN: But while muskoxen still fight these unfair and inaccurate body image issues, their populations have seen a resurgence from a century ago. In 1917, Canada enforced protections of muskoxen, and in 1930, the government took action to reintroduce muskoxen to Alaska. They were like, muskoxen, meet Alaska. Alaska, meet muskoxen. You both like snow, you both wish humans would leave you alone, I think you’ll hit it off. So 34 Greenland muskoxen were captured  in 1930 and in 1936, they were transported to Alaska’s Nunivak Island. Which kind of begs the question, what happened in those six years? Did they lose all their money in the stock market crash and become scattered across breadlines? Did they get distracted binging Shirley Temple movies? Did they do the Charleston for the entire trip? Seriously, why did it take so long?

ETHAN: The transplants continued throughout the 60s and 70s, and today, there are around 5,300 muskoxen in Alaska, with around 560 muskoxen descended from that original transplant group. This was a great example of a successful reintroduction effort, and certainly provides lessons for the conservation of other endangered species too.

ETHAN: [Winter Beauty] But despite these successes, muskoxen populations are starting to face threats again. According to research from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, some really important muskox populations around the world are actually in decline. There’s a few reasons for this, and let’s start by continuing our theme of hunting. Now, muskoxen are an important food source for many Indigenous communities, so it’s not like hunting is unjustified. If you told me we had to stop hunting parmesan cheese, I’d be pretty pissed off. But it’s not so much the practice of hunting that’s creating problems as it is the governance of it.

ETHAN: Take Alaska. Assuming that females would be more important to overall population growth than males because they’re the ones that have the babies, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game granted permits each year for hunting male muskoxen. Upon hearing the news, these muskoxen went straight to Discord and became incels. But shockingly, you really wouldn’t believe this, but the men might serve a purpose too. Don’t come after me, I know it’s a hot take, it wasn’t my idea, but as male populations declined, park officials were finding that the populations of female muskoxen and their babies were also declining, and researchers started to speculate that may be because of the missing males. With many other animals, males serve a bigger purpose than just opening peanut butter jars — they make alarm calls or even fight off predators to protect their families.

ETHAN: But we didn’t have evidence that muskoxen do this because they’re really hard to study! You have to go way up north to find muskoxen, and if you give a biologist the choice between a trip to the tundra or a trip to the Galápagos, I think that’s a pretty easy decision. In all seriousness, there’s many scientists working in the cold, like this one — Colorado State University’s Dr. Joel Berger — who decided to find out for himself how muskoxen react to grizzlies.

CLIP:  People just haven’t been thinking how we might try to get more insights about these animals. We’ve been interested in understanding how grizzly bears affect muskoxen. We can’t just make believe this is Serengeti or Yellowstone and get a lot of interactions. We don’t see that. Hence, we dress up as a grizzly bear and approach groups.

ETHAN: I’m sorry, he’s going to do what? I don’t know, I think that sounds like a plan to turn Dr. Berger into, well, a burger. [munching] This dangerous plan to conduct research, though, should give you a sense of how difficult it is to understand muskoxen. He knew it was a possibility he’d get attacked by doing this, and obviously planned for that, but the fact he did it anyway is quite remarkable. And what he found in this project is that muskox herds certainly got nervous seeing scientist grizzly bear approach, and seven times, a muskox charged at him. All seven times, that muskox was a male. And what that means is (1) male muskoxen are certified idiots if they think they can take on a grizzly, but (2) fragile masculinity aside, the females and babies are less safe without them. So while we’re not necessarily hunting muskoxen to extinction the way we used to, we are disrupting the species in ways we certainly did not intend to.

ETHAN: Beyond hunting, humans have also impacted muskoxen via climate change. And I know what you’re thinking. “Ethan, muskoxen have been around since the Ice Age! The climate has warmed several degrees since then! How could muskoxen possibly care about one more degree?” It’s true, they are very resilient. In fact, they are so resilient that they could often just adapt to new climate conditions in place and not really move. It’s like winter in Chicago — you don’t move to Florida, you hole up inside! And adapting in place works when you have thousands of years to make a plan. But with the climate now changing way faster than it ever has due to human greenhouse gas emissions, muskoxen can’t adapt that quickly. They do need to move, and they suck at traveling in groups. Spring break is not a thing for them. As such, Dr. Andersen tells us that summer and winter weather are presenting challenges.

ANDERSEN: These animals are really adapted. To extremely cold temperatures and also to low levels of precipitation during summertime so changes in temperatures. But also [00:08:35] in levels of rain that may come during summertime, may actually threatened muskox and just like just as much as the distributor ceases and parasites coming in. So there are so it’s particularly sort. Patterns of precipitation that threaten Musk Oxen in wintertime. You can have like so. So, Musk [00:09:05] Oxen eat different kinds of vegetation. So in the winter in these Arctic Landscapes, you have snow and ice, but as long as it’s just like very cold and snow covering the plants, they can reach them that the danger is if it starts. So I Owing or melting temperatures rise and then freeze again, all of a sudden. Then there’s a nice layer that sort of does not allow muskoxen to to access the food and that can be very lethal for whole population. So that’s one thing and as we know with climate change the seasons become sort of less stable and we cannot  really predict All of a sudden, there’s a thought, and a freeze in the middle of winter time or new fries, and summertime and things, just become messed up in ways that the muskox and don’t,  ya cannot really adapt to. In the summertime, actually, you might expect that with such So much wool and hair. Fur, it wouldn’t be a problem for them to choose sort of resist rain. But actually, when they get really wet, especially the young ones, the coughs, if they get wet, they can freeze and get pneumonia and suffer from other kinds of diseases that they have not been used to, In Search of the Arctic cold weather, where rain is not that common.

ETHAN: And I can’t really think of anything more depressing than a baby muskox with pneumonia, besides maybe a baby goldfish with hand foot and mouth disease.

ETHAN: To give you an example of what Dr. Andersen is talking about, back in February 2011, there was a tidal surge in Alaska, which is odd because they usually happen in October or November. The unusual event killed a group of nearly 50 muskoxen. Waves were nearly seven feet tall, and likely completely soaked the muskoxen, leaving them unable to insulate themselves and causing them to ultimately die of exposure. Tony Gorn, a wildlife biologist in Alaska, noted that the “animals seem to be really confused by rising water…. Even though it’s apparent they have to walk through a couple feet of water to get to drier land, they don’t do it.” You might call them oxy-morons. [BA DUM TSSS] But seriously, I blame the parents — their moms should have never let them quit swim lessons.

Muskoxen also face the threat of ice melt, as Dr. Andersen explains.

ANDERSEN: You have a A lot more, melt melt off of the Inland ice in the summertime, which causes new kinds of landslides, and new kinds of sort of risks. Also, for flooding of areas. [00:12:35] And I mean, these situations and conditions are just as makes life as unpredictable for the Musk Oxen as it does for humans. And I think it would be really interesting to trace and see how [00:12:50] How it affects populations of Musk Oxen, as well as caribou and other animals that live there. Of course, I mean the yeah, the polar bear, which is more sort of iconic, as an M animal, both in the Arctic, but also of climate change, is more severely impacted because they hunt from from the, from the sea ice. And as the sea ice, particularly Early as sort of decreasing, they have to find other methods for hunting, right? And that’s not really the case for Musk Oxen that are terrestrial mammals and they can sort of just move to another area. So as long as there’s as long as there’s vegetation and they don’t get sick and there are not too many of them, they can still adapt and seek new areas for  Yeah, for foraging there have actually been cases of muskox and trying to sort of cross a river so that they were used to Crossing, but due to sort of huge amounts of water coming through, it,  they, they get flooded and die. So these are sort of individual cases that I’ve heard people talk about when I do field work.

ETHAN: [Threats of Tunguska] But it’s not just ice being lost. As the climate changes, the soil starts to warm, causing it to rupture, slump, and ultimately erode. This causes a long list of problems, among them being that it releases stored carbon into the atmosphere and drives climate change further, but for muskoxen specifically, this soil erosion leads to a loss of land for them. According to a study from earlier this year in Nature Climate Change, if greenhouse gas emissions were to keep increasing, we could see Arctic erosion rates more than double by 2100. Now I expect global greenhouse emissions to plateau soon and begin to fall, they already have been falling in the U.S. since 2005, so I’m not saying that’s going to happen to that extreme, but certainly an issue to keep an eye on as climate change worsens.

ETHAN: And muskox threats go on and on. We did an episode on climate gentrification last year which actually presents a challenge for muskoxen. As sea levels rise in the Arctic, people are moving to the mountains, which drives out low income communities but also drives out muskoxen. There’s also issues of disease, with very easy-to-pronounce names such as yersinia pseudotuberculosis serotype 1B, ersipelothrix rhusiopathiae, and umingmakstrongylus pallikuukensis. These diseases don’t just kill twelve-year-old’s dreams in the Scripps National Spelling Bee — they also kill muskoxen, with the latter possibly contributing to a 50 percent decline in the muskoxen population in Canada.

ETHAN: Muskoxen even present threats to each other. To compete for food or mates, the males will often headbutt each other, and research from Mount Sinai found these rituals cause traumatic brain injury. And it’s one thing if you just got released from the Carolina Panthers after being the number one overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, get picked up on waivers by the LA Rams, learn the playbook on the airplane, start your first game less than two days later, put together the longest game-winning drive with under two minutes left that the NFL has seen in 45 years, and then headbutt your teammate on the sideline while he’s wearing a helmet because you’re just that excited, but you can’t be doing that regularly. It’s just not safe, muskoxen. It’s not a good idea.

ETHAN: So what comes next? We’ll explore why muskoxen matter, how we can protect them moving forward, and why they’re far from the ugly and smelly creatures they’ve been branded as right after this.

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ETHAN: The Sweaty Penguin is presented by Peril and Promise: a public media initiative from The WNET Group in New York, reporting on the issues and solutions around climate change. You can learn more at

ETHAN: Who cares if muskoxen go extinct, right? Well, to start, Dr. Andersen argues there is inherent value to keeping these creatures around.

ANDERSEN: People should care because it’s a curious funny animal with a particular history in human lives and and communities. But in particular also, because of the current sort of biodiversity crisis that that we are living and causing through our patterns of consumption and so forth. So, there are various reasons to care and be interested and not least because it is a curious kind of animal that has a very particular trajectory through world history. 

ETHAN: And that may be enough for some people to care. If I can add to that, though, muskoxen help their environments by spreading seeds and providing food to their predators. And for humans, we discussed how muskoxen are a fantastic food source in the far north. They’re one of the easier animals to hunt, and they’re gigantic. They’re like the size of a medium drink at Raising Cane’s. But they’re more than just a food source. Trophy hunters will pay tens of thousands of dollars for the opportunity to hunt muskoxen. And their underwool — called qiviut — is considered eight times warmer than wool and is highly coveted for gloves, hats, and coats, to the point where it can sell for 200 dollars an ounce. That means a single muskox could be worth up to $6,400 just on qiviut alone. In other words, muskoxen actually help the economy, and I think we’re better off with money in the hands of low-income communities in the far north than any person willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars just to shoot a muskox. But whatever floats your boat, I guess.

ETHAN: [Good Morning Arctica] And that’s where I need to start when we talk solutions because where there is money, there is prime opportunity for conservation. I hate to break it to you, Notorious B.I.G., but mo’ money sometimes means mo’ solutions. Think about it. Cows, sheep, chickens — they’re never going to go extinct because communities have put in structures in order to make money off them. I’m not saying throw muskoxen into factory farms or start mass producing muskox dino nuggets, but there’s certainly a place in the middle where people could own muskoxen, make money off them, and as such, have a major vested interest in their conservation. This idea is actually starting to be explored a little bit. There are two muskox farms in Alaska — one a nonprofit and one a research station — but they’ve expressed that there is absolutely potential to turn this sort of thing into a for-profit enterprise. Obviously one can argue that this is exploitative or unethical, and I think that’s very fair. I also understand the argument that any means of conserving and growing the species is ethical. That said, I also only leave one inch between me and the car in front of me when I parallel park, so who am I to lecture you on ethics?

ETHAN: There’s many other paths forward too, though. Currently, the strategy seems to be less so privatizing muskox hunting and more so just regulating it. That’s fine, but it ought to be done strategically. We really would need more research into these male-female dynamics we discussed earlier to get a good understanding of what gender ratio benefits the species the most. If we’re too lopsided, it appears we start to see a lot of unnecessary muskox deaths, not to mention male muskoxen getting Ray Bans and buying Bugattis to compensate. But until then, one thing we can do to improve our management of the species would be to actually listen to the locals who live amongst them. Here’s Dr. Andersen on how that simple step can help.

ANDERSEN: in Greenland in particular where we work, there are many debates and controversies and you might even say conflicts about management of of different animal species. And in particular, of course, the species that are hunted for for livelihoods and for sustenance and for different purposes. And I think my main Suggestion and advice. And I would even call it an urgency. Is that to sort of work to integrate, local forms of knowledge into regimes, all modes of management. And by law, that also has to be so but very often and for good reasons, animal species, managed by sort of pure, you might say biological Logics. So there’s a lot of counting and During which is really necessary but there’s so much we do not know about how animals and musk ox and behave, and socialize, and how they thrive in a context that is also  impacted by humans or by other species. So looking less as at species as individual isolated beings. But actually at ecosystems, Where humans are also a part and humans with different interests and different ways of knowing and treasuring and relating to the to the landscape and the ecosystem. I think that’s really crucial.

ETHAN: Certainly good advice. Now, there are some issues like certain diseases and headbutting that humans have very little to no control over, and one could argue we really shouldn’t intervene on since they are a natural part of life for muskoxen. It’s like telling toddlers not to draw on the wall with a Sharpie. Like, leave them alone, it’s what they evolved to do! But there’s one thing we can control, and that’s climate change. We have so many episodes breaking down ways to mitigate climate change, adapt to it, and reap benefits from an economic, health, and justice point of view simultaneously, so I’m not going to rehash all that right now, but certainly, it seems continuing our efforts to combat climate change is one of the biggest things we can do to help muskoxen and other animals all over the world.

ETHAN: [Happy Diner Deals] As you listen to this episode, world leaders are gathered in Montreal at the UN Biodiversity Conference, and I expect I’ll have more to say on that next week. But world leaders are clearly aware that biodiversity is extremely important, not just because animals are cute, but because animals help our environment, economy, and the livelihoods of the people who reside around them. Muskoxen are no different. They may not be endangered, but threats to them are threats to us, and if we can address climate change, hunt more strategically, and maybe even find ways to turn muskoxen into moneymakers, we will avoid the need for any more PSAs like this:

ETHAN: [Moonlight Caring] Muskoxen are dying. And it’s not because they’re so smelly that no one wants to mate with them, or that they’re so ugly they just jump off a cliff. It’s because of us, and the climate crisis we’ve created. If you want to learn more about how to protect muskoxen, call 1-800-NOT-UGLY-NOT-FORGOTTEN and you can save a muskox today. Well, probably not today, I have plans after work, but this week at the latest. I promise, I’ll get to it. [END MUSIC]

ETHAN: This wraps up episode 108 of the Sweaty Penguin, take two minutes, help out the show and get a shoutout at the end of the show by leaving a 5-star rating and review on apple or podcast addict, or join our patreon at like our latest patreon Brian Murlets. Thank you so much for joining the patron Brian, and we really appreciate it. Brian and all our patreon get merch, bonus content, and more. Clips today came from sci-fri. SPecial thanks to our emperor penguin patrons; Lawrence Harris and Brownee Central. The Sweaty Penguin is presented by Peril and Promise: a public media initiative from The WNET Group in New York, reporting on the issues and solutions around climate change. You can learn more at The opinions expressed in this podcast are thos of the host and guests, they do not necessarily reflect the opinion or views of Peril and Promise or the WNET group. Thank you all for listening and ill see you on time next week for tip of the iceberg, and do not forget go vote for us at the signal awards, head to our social medias, you’ll get the link there. See you next week.