Wondernose: What animal wears an apron of hair that drags on the ground when it walks?

by Rebecca Martin | Jan 10, 2022 | 0 comments

Domestic yak train
Photo © Dreamstime.com.

Here’s a big animal for you! The adult males grow to over 6 feet (2 m) high at the shoulders. They may weigh three-quarters of a ton.

Buffalo? Good guess, Wondernose, but no. There are similarities, though. Both our mystery animal and the buffalo are bovines, meaning they are cattle. However, our mystery animal doesn’t say “moo.” It has been called the “grunting ox,” referring to its voice. But “grunting ox” is not the name you’d recognize.

Our mystery animal’s horns are impressive. They may be as long as 3 feet (1 m)! In spite of the formidable horns, I haven’t heard that this animal has any reputation for being fierce.

In fact, the people in the country where these animals live have domesticated them. The domestic variety is usually smaller than the ones in the wild. But both wild and domestic individuals are tough, wiry, and sure-footed. In mountainous Tibet, being sure-footed is a valuable trait.

I knew you’d guess the answer, Wondernose, as soon as I mentioned Tibet. Yes, this is the yak, native of the wild Tibetan uplands. This area has been called the most inhospitable region in the world. Up there on the roof of the world, as the Tibetan highlands are sometimes called, temperatures sometimes drop as low as -40° F/C.

Few other mammals live at an altitude of 20,000 feet (6 km)! It’s a mystery how an animal as big as the yak can find enough food there to survive. I’m thinking the grass on those cold plateaus must be as tough and wiry as the yaks themselves! But survive they do.

Traditionally, the people of Tibet had many uses for the yaks’ long hair. Strands were braided to make ropes. In fact, a domestic yak’s harness may have been made from its own hair. At one time, yaks’ tails were highly prized. A yak plume on an officer’s headdress indicated his high rank.

Yaks make excellent pack animals. With their short legs and large round feet, they are sure-footed on the steep slopes.

Domestic yaks are also valuable as milk producers. Butter is made from the milk. If the butter becomes rancid, it is turned into “ghee,” which is more like oil. Ghee is a prized food for the Tibetan. He will even use it in his tea!

Having been crossed with other cattle, domestic yaks are often black and white. Their skins are prized for leather. And here’s another way the yak is valuable to man—it provides fuel for fires. You see, in those high altitudes there are no forests to provide firewood. Dried yak dung can serve as fuel. True, Wondernose—in the treeless Canadian west, pioneers burned a lot of dried buffalo dung too.

Yaks need a lot of water to drink. Up on those cold, dry plateaus, Wondernose, there are large lakes. In the winter they eat snow.

Wild yaks were endangered at one time, but in 1996 they were upgraded to vulnerable. Some wild herds still survive. Up and down the rocky slopes they clamber, hairy aprons swirling in the wind.

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