If you happen to find yourself in the Dovre mountains in the south of Norway, you may come across a flock of large, mean looking sheep-like animals. If you do, congratulations – you have just met one of the latest additions to the Norwegian wildlife: The muskox.
Muskoxen are a species native to Arctic Canada, Alaska and Greenland, but in 1932 a few of them were introduced to the Dovre mountain range as part of a scientific experiment on adaptation. The animals took well to their new home and today they count roughly 200 individuals.
Even though the males are called bulls and the females cows, the muskoxen are more closely related to sheep than cattle. Make no mistake, though – this is not your average cuddly ba-ba-blacksheep! A grown animal can be 2,5 m long and weigh up to 400 kgs, and their long curved horns mean business. Muskoxen are flock animals and very protective of their young, and if they feel threatened the adults will form a tight ring around their calves with their horns facing the danger. They can run as fast as 60 km/h, so it is best to observe them from a safe distance. Bulls are very aggressive and will charge anything that gets too close.
Fortunately, I know some people who can get me close enough to shoot some pictures of muskox. Tromsø University keeps around 20 muskoxen for research, most of these are safely tucked away on a small island a few miles southwest of Tromsø. The island is clearly signposted with “LAND AT YOUR OWN RISK”, and you’ll really risk your life if you take a coffee break there during mating season.
A couple of calves, however, are kept in a pen right outside the main campus in Tromsø. The researchers feel safe keeping them there, as one of my lecturers told me, “simply because they don’t know their own strength”. If motivated, the “little” fellas could easily head-butt their way through the fence and run for freedom. So the Uni staff makes sure to keep them fed and happy. And this one didn’t seem to mind being photographed either… He looks a bit unkept in the picture below, but that’s just because he is shedding his winter coat.
If you want to observe muskox and other Arctic animals up close, pay a visit to Polar Zoo in Bardu – a three hour drive south of Tromsø. The zoo also has deer, wolverines, moose, bears, lynx and wolves.