The oral anatomy of Arctic ruminants: coping with seasonal changes


All correspondence to: Svein Mathiesen. E-mail:


We studied the feeding apparatus of three species of northern ruminants representative of three feeding types: muskoxen Ovibos moschatus, Norwegian reindeer Rangifer tarandus tarandus and high Arctic Svalbard reindeer Rangifer tarandus platyhrynchus and Siberian musk deer Moschus moschiferus. The shape of the muzzle, the incisor arcade, the incisiform and the molariform teeth indicate that these species are selective feeders, irrespective of their body size or their position on the gazer-concentrate selector continuum of feeding types. Narrow muzzles seem well adapted for selective feeding on the diminutive but highly nutritious plants, or parts of plants, on tundra swards and Arctic-alpine meadows and enable the animals to maximize nutrient intake during the short summer. However, their small mouths presumably also restrict reindeer and muskoxen to taking small bites, thereby achieving low rates of dry matter intake when feeding on the very short swards in winter. This is partially obviated by two general strategies; a reduction of energy requirements in winter and, in Norwegian reindeer, migration inland to where foraging conditions are generally more favourable. In Svalbard reindeer, which have little access to lichens or other easy digestible plants in winter, rumen fill increases through the accumulation of slowly fermenting fibrous foods. Despite their narrow muzzles, reindeer and muskoxen are unable to avoid ingesting a certain amount of poor quality forage in winter and cope with this by appropriate modification of digestive function.