Musk Deer (Moschinae)

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Musk deer


Class Mammalia

Order Artiodactyla

Family Cervidae

Subfamily Moschinae

Thumbnail description
Small-sized deer without antlers, coat color is grizzled brown with whitish yellow spots and stripes on the chest; both males and females have well-developed upper canines; in males, long and protruding as fangs, up to 3 in (7 cm) long; hind legs are longer than forelegs, thus the rump of the body is elevated and withers slope forward; animals move by jumps; males have a musk bag, externally visible near its reproductive organs

Shoulder height: 20.8–31.4 in (53–80 cm); body length: 33.8–39.3 in (86–100 cm); tail length: 1.5–2.3 in (4–6 cm); weight: 22–39.6 lb (10–18 kg)

Number of genera, species
1 genus; 4 species

Mountain forest

Conservation status
Vulnerable: 1 species; Lower Risk/Near Threatened: 3 species

Confined to the Old World: eastern Asia from the limits of forested zone at 70°N to Myanmar and Himalayas

Evolution and systematics

Musk deer are different from all other deer. They include a combination of primitive features (long tusks, lack of antlers) and advanced features (a four-chambered stomach). Unlike other Cervidae, musk deer have gallbladders. As for other ungulates that feed on concentrated fodder, musk deer are selective in their diet, sedentary, defend their home ranges, their diurnal rhythm of feeding and rest interchange up to 12 times, and they have a high reproductive rate. There are four species of musk deer: Moschus chrysogaster, M. moschiferus, M. berezovskii, and M. fuscus.

Physical characteristics

Musk deer are small-sized deer without antlers. Due to long and strong hind legs and shorter and weaker forelegs, musk deer look asymmetric, with heavy rump, banded back, and sloped withers. The distinctive body construction restricts the movement style of the animals: they walk or jump, and never run. The small head is adorned by a pair of big, sensible, hare-like ears. The muzzle around the black nostrils is hairless. Both sexes have long canines; in males, these tusks are protruding, in females, they are hidden in the mouth. Dewclaws on hooves are nearly the same size as central ones and their prints are visible in tracks.

The preputial gland is a protrusion of preputial skin with a separate opening; it has two layers of glands (inner and outer ones) around the mouth. Secretion starts as males reach the age of 8–9 months, and when males are around 15–16 months old, their sac is full of secretion. The maximum of secretion occurs from May–June, when the sac is filled. In addition, epithelium cells from the inner layer of the sac as well as masses of bacterium mix with the secretion. After short period of ripening, the sac is filled with a strongly odorous, granulated, reddish brown substance. This secretion of the preputial gland induces estrus in females and is very important in the course of mating.

Musk deer have many fragrant glands: on the nose mirror, pre-orbital, tarsal, metatarsal, circum anal, around the tail basement as well as on upper and side tail surfaces, and on the shanks of the hind legs. Secretion of all these glands is important in animal communication, in marking of home range, in individual distinguishing (mostly nasal glands), and in stimulation of a sexual partner.


The western edge of their distribution is the Altai Mountains. Eastward from there, musk deer are distributed in the mountains of southern Siberia. Musk deer range expands over the mountain crests of Siberia and eastern Siberia to the shores of the Japan Sea and the Okhotsk Sea. Musk deer are also distributed in China, Korea, Myanmar, and Vietnam; a wide area covers the Himalayas (Bhutan, China, India, and Nepal).


Musk deer occur mostly on mountain slopes and on terraces, foothills, in mountain valleys, and on river bank escarpments. There are habitats at altitudes from 1,300–14,400 ft (400–4,400 m). Dense coniferous and broadleaved forests with rich undergrowths are common habitats of musk deer. Solitary rocks or rock pendants with very steep escarpments where musk deer, when necessary, can remain inaccessible to predators.


Musk deer live solitarily, sedentary, and they keep strictly to their home ranges year-round, and never migrate. Home range borders are confined to natural margins like ridge crests and rivulets. There are feeding paths, watering places, and resting points, as well as defecation and urination points. Resting places are chosen for their access for their clear views: hilltops, anthill tops, ridge crests. In bad weather, animals take cover under branched trees or under protruding rocks.

They mark home range year-round with the secretion of their nasal and tail glands, by urine and pellets, and by scratching the ground with their hooves, which are also supplied with odorous glands to make scent-marks. Musk deer use the same latrines over and over, only for defecation (never to urinate). Home range includes rocky escarpments (usually small patches to 8–16 in [20–40 cm] wide) that are inaccessible to predators. Otherwise, animals hide in bushy thickets or under sloped trees and in piles of wooden trash. The home range of a male overlaps with home ranges of several does.

During mating season, the musk secretion issued by males in the urine is highly concentrated and marks snow with dark pink or red spots. During the rut (mating season), three or four animals make a group. Males start battles that are not especially fierce.

Musk deer have excellent vision and hearing, though their communication is predominantly by olfaction as they have an acute sense of smell. Once disturbed, musk deer freeze motionless, or jump to escape.

Feeding ecology and diet

Musk deer eat arboreal lichens, forbs, leaves, flowers, moss, needles of conifers shoots, twigs, and grass. They only nibble a small proportion of food at a time, as it minimizes the pressure on vegetation so that they can return to the same feeding place many times. Musk deer can also rise on hind legs or climb on bent trunks to reach leaves.

Reproductive biology

A polygamous group, musk deer have relatively a high reproductive rate, and twins and even triplets are not unusual. The mating season varies with locality and altitude, from November–January. After a gestation of 178–198 days, fawning takes place from May–June. Calves are born in hidden places, and within 25–30 minutes, will suckle its mother for the first time. Newborns will weigh 15.5–16.6 oz (440–470 g). Duration of

nursing is three to four months. At the end of this period, a calf is nursed only once every five days. Calves younger than three months remain hidden and do not follow their mother. Young

grow quickly; females become sexually mature and capable of breeding in their first year.

Conservation status

Recently, the slaughter of the animal for its musk, which is used in medicine and perfume, has greatly reduced the numbers of Siberian musk deer (Moschus moschiferus), a species that used to be very numerous not so long ago. The IUCN lists it as Vulnerable. A high reproductive rate, its hidden mode of life, and breeding at farms has minimized the pressure of hunting. The other three musk deer species are Lower Risk/Near Threatened.

Significance to humans

Musk is highly valued in Chinese medicine, as it is used for the alleged improvement of health, treatment of inflammation, fever, and in the manufacture of soaps and perfumes. For cosmetic and alleged pharmaceutical properties, musk can fetch $24,000–45,000 per 2.2 lb (1 kg). Japan annually imports 220 –1,650 lb (100–750 kg) of musk; China 1,100–2,200 lb (500–1,000 kg); Taiwan 77 lb (35 kg); and the Republic of Korea 290 lb (130 kg). Since 1958, many farms have appeared in China where musk deer are bred and musk can be taken from the preputial sac without harm to the animal.

Species accounts

List of Species

Himalayan musk deer
Siberian musk deer

Himalayan musk deer

Moschus chrysogaster


Moschus chrysogaster (Hodgson, 1839), Nepal.

other common names

English: Alpine musk deer; French: Porte-musk; German: Moschushirsch; Spanish: Ciervo almizclero de montana.

physical characteristics

Shoulder height: 20–21 in (51–53 cm); body length: 2.8–3.3 ft (86–100 cm); tail length: 1.6–2.4 in (4–6 cm); weight: 24–40 lb (11–18 kg). General color is light grizzled brown; on the chest is a wide vertical whitish yellow stripe, which extends up the throat to the chin. Tail is hairless, but has a small tuff at the end. Ears are long.


Along Himalayas in Nepal, northern India, southern China, Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Pakistan.


Elevations of 6,600–14,100 ft (2,000–4,300 m). They use forest and shrub land, dwarf rhododendron, alpine woods, low shrubs on eastern and southern edges of Tibet, and the slopes of the Himalayas. They choose slopes that are not very steep in oak and fir woods with birch, pine, juniper, and bushes. Grasses and lichens in under story are very important for their habitats.


Home range of a buck overlaps home ranges of several does; bucks fiercely defend their territories from rivals. Musk deer are active from dusk to dawn when they alternate feeding and rest; they are vigilant for predators. They dare to appear in clearings at night, though remain hidden in thickets during the day. When they hear a signal of danger, they make a loud double hiss, and flee.

Musk deer stay in their home ranges the entire year, using an area of 2,200 acres (900 ha) for bucks and 740 acres (300 ha) for does. Home range comprises traditional trails, feeding places, watering points, and rocky promontories to escape from predators. Sometimes, several neighbors share the only steep outcrop in an area. Piles of wood and shrub thickets also serve as a cover from enemies. Main predators are yellow-throated marten, fox, wolf, and lynx.

feeding ecology and diet

In winter and autumn, they feed mostly on forbs, leaves of oak, gaultheria, and shrubs. In spring and summer, forbs, lichens, herbs, and moss are main food.

reproductive biology

Polygamous. Gestation lasts 6.5 months, with one or two fawns per birth. Rut goes in December–January, calving in May–June. Fawns stay hidden in thickets where mother comes to nurse them. Weaning occurs at three to four months. Sexual maturity is reached at 1.5 to two years. Life expectancy high, 12–20 years, but actual lifespan is about three years in the wild and two to four years on farms.

conservation status

Lower Risk/Near Threatened.

significance to humans

Commercial game species, mainly due to musk.

Siberian musk deer

Moschus moschiferus


Moschus moschiferus Linnaeus, 1758, southwestern Siberia, Russia.

other common names

French: Porte-Musc; German: Moschushirsch; Spanish: Ciervo almizclero.

physical characteristics

Body length: 24–39 in (60–100 cm); tail length: 1.2–2.4 in (3–6 cm); weight: 18–36 lb (8–16 kg). General color of the coat varies from dark brown to grizzly brown. They have fuzzy whitish yellow spots on neck and chest, with rows of brighter spots on both sides of the body. Observers use these spot patterns to distinguish one animal from another. A light-colored band goes beneath neck to divide the chest. Newborns have thick pattern of yellowish spots. At the beginning of winter after shedding, calves obtain common color; though spots on their skin look brighter. Adult coat appears by their second winter.


Inhabit a wide area in eastern Asia from the border of the forest zone at the north (71°N) to Hindu Kush and Himalayan regions of Afghanistan, Nepal, Pakistan, and India to the south, and from the Altai Mountains eastward to the shores of Japan Sea and Okhotsk Sea.


Two factors are critical to their habitats: abundant tree lichens for fodder and shelter from predators. They inhabit dark coniferous forests with rich undergrowths and ground moss cover; in light coniferous forests (larch), and sometimes in coniferous-broadleaf forest. Solitary rocks or rock promontories are important. Sometimes, there is only one such point for all deer in the area.

In winter, they escape to areas with snow cover deeper than 23.6–27.5 in (60–70 cm). Due to their low weight and peculiar hoof structure (footing on all four fingers), they exert low pressure on snow, which is why they move easily on crusted snow surfaces. Deep and loose snow impedes their movement and causes mortality.


Usually five to seven females, some with fawns, make a commune and their individual home ranges are overlapped by the home range of a dominating male. The stronger a female, the more central position in the commune area it occupies. As old animals perish, younger ones move closer to the center. Home ranges of males never overlap; the male marks his home range. There are seven to 10 latrines at each home range, each used many times by a host deer. Latrines serve also as important territory marks.

Musk deer are nocturnal, mostly active in twilight and at night. Daily home range reaches 4.9–24.7 acres (2–10 ha). To escape from predators, musk deer can jump 16.4–19.6 ft (5–6m), landing to all four legs, as well as jump and turn in the air 90°. These deer are very vigilant and spend some 55% of feeding time listening for danger. Once approached, they rush away; when chased, they use many tricks to escape. Predators are yellow-throated marten, lynx, wolverine, less wolves and foxes.

feeding ecology and diet

Arboreal lichens and some terrestrial bushy lichens are their main food sources (more than 80% of the diet) in winter, as well as fir needles (either larch or pine needles, depending on type of coniferous forest), and twigs, leaves, dry cereals, berries, and mushrooms. Food is available on the snow surface and on tree branches; they can also dig in the snow for food. To reach lichens, an animal can stretch up to 55 in (140 cm). When snow is heavy, musk deer, otherwise sedentary, were observed to migrate up to 20 mi (35 km) for food. Lichens are constantly consumed in summer as a remedy to help digest green herbaceous plants. Also in summer, they feed on forbs, leaves, flowers, moss, shoots, twigs, and grass. Their daily input is 5.6–9.3 oz (160–265 g) of forage.

reproductive biology

Polygamous. Rut occurs in November–December; calving in April–May in the Amur basin or in June in Yakutia.

conservation status

Vulnerable. Subspecies (M. m. sachalinensis) inhabiting Sakhalin Island is in the most troublesome position. In Russia, M. m. sachalinensis is Endangered. According to 1997 estimations, there were about 50,000 M. m. moschiferus, 5,000 M. m. parviceps, and 300 M. m. sachalinensis.

significance to humans

An important hunting species.



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Leonid Baskin, PhD

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Musk Deer (Moschinae)

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