Brief Summary

The genus Moschus (musk-deer), a group that was long treated as including just a single species, is now generally believed to include at least seven species. Moschus is the only genus in the family Moschidae, which was long subsumed as a subfamily within the deer family (Cervidae) but is now widely recognized (based on a range of evidence) as quite distinct from the cervids and possibly not even their closest relatives. Musk-deer may be more closely related to cattle and antelopes (family Bovidae) than to the Cervidae.

Musk-deer are small (70 to 100 cm), hornless ruminants with hindquarters considerably higher than their forequarters. They have long, rabbit-like erect ears; long limbs; a small tail; and a thick grayish or brownish coat with erect hairs on the upperparts of the body. Male musk-deer have long, slender, curved upper canines (used for fighting), a large glandular musk-producing sac on the belly in front of the genitalia (the source of their name), and a glandular tail. In the rutting season, the musk sac swells dramatically, apparently in response to elevated testosterone levels.

Musk-deer are found in forests and alpine scrub in mountains and hilly country in much of eastern Asia.  Over much of their range, the ground is snow-covered for at least half the year. Musk-deer are generally timid and shy and when startled bounce rapidly away on their stilt-like legs, usually along a zig-zagging path. They are sufficiently light and agile (the largest musk-deer are little more than 60 cm at the shoulder and at most 18 kg) that they can leap into and climb trees to escape predators or to forage on lichens and leaves.

Male musk-deer are strongly territorial and both sexes scent-mark extensively. Males mature at around 1.5 to 3 years of age; females may conceive at just a year old. Males begin to secrete musk in their second year and may continue until around 20 years, but peak production is from around three to nine years.

Musk from male musk-deer has been used in perfume making and in traditional medicine in China and elsewhere for more than a thousand years. Unfortunately, this has resulted in the trapping and shooting of enormous numbers of musk-deer (causing even more inadvertent deaths of females and young males--which don't produce musk--than of the intended adult male targets) and all or nearly all musk-deer species are now endangered.  Conservation efforts have included the development of synthetic musk (which is now widely used in perfumery) and the establishment of musk-deer farms. The main hunting pressure on musk-deer today is to fuel the demand from traditional medicinal uses.

(Groves 2011 and references therein)

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Historic Range:
Central and eastern Asia


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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Statistics of barcoding coverage

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD) Stats
Specimen Records:19
Specimens with Sequences:39
Specimens with Barcodes:19
Species With Barcodes:4
Public Records:19
Public Species:4
Public BINs:4
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Source: Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD)


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Barcode data

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Conservation Status

Current Listing Status Summary

Status: Endangered
Date Listed: 06/14/1976
Lead Region: Foreign (Region 10) 
Where Listed: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, China (Tibet, Yunnan), India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sikkim

Population detail:

Population location: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, China (Tibet, Yunnan), India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sikkim
Listing status: E

For most current information and documents related to the conservation status and management of Moschus, see its USFWS Species Profile


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Musk deer

Musk deer can refer to any one of, or all seven species, that make up Moschus, the only extant genus of the family Moschidae.[1] Musk deer are more primitive than cervids, or true deer, because they lack antlers and facial glands, and possess only a single pair of teats, a gall bladder, a caudal gland, a pair of tusk-like teeth and—of particular economic importance to humans—a musk gland.

Musk deer live mainly in forested and alpine scrub habitats in the mountains of southern Asia, notably the Himalayas. Moschids, the proper term when referring to this type of deer rather than one/multiple species of musk deer, are entirely Asian in their present distribution, being extinct in Europe where the earliest musk deer are known to have existed from Oligocene deposits.


Skull of a buck showing the trademark teeth
Skeleton of Micromeryx showing the general skeletal features

Musk deer resemble small deer with a stocky build, and hind legs longer than their front legs. They are about 80 to 100 cm (31 to 39 in) long, 50 to 70 cm (20 to 28 in) tall at the shoulder, and weigh between 7 and 17 kg (15 and 37 lb). The feet of musk deer are adapted for climbing in rough terrain. Like the Chinese water deer, a cervid, they have no antlers, but the males do have enlarged upper canines, forming sabre-like tusks. The dental formula is similar to that of true deer:

The musk gland is found only in adult males. It lies in a sac located between the genitals and the umbilicus, and its secretions are most likely used to attract mates.

Musk deer are herbivores, living in hilly, forested environments, generally far from human habitation. Like true deer, they eat mainly leaves, flowers, and grasses, with some mosses and lichens. They are solitary animals, and maintain well-defined territories, which they scent mark with their caudal glands. Musk deer are generally shy, and either nocturnal, or crepuscular.

Males leave their territories during the rutting season, and compete for mates, using their tusks as weapons. Female musk deer give birth to a single fawn after about 150–180 days. The newborn young are very small, and essentially motionless for the first month of their lives, a feature that helps them remain hidden from predators.[2]

Musk deers have been hunted for their scent glands, which can fetch up to $45,000/kg on the black market. It is rumored that ancient royalty wore the scent of the musk deer and that it is an aphrodisiac.[3]


Reconstruction of the extinct American species Blastomeryx gemmifer
Reconstruction of the extinct genus Micromeryx

Musk deer may be a surviving representative of the Palaeomerycidae, a family of ruminants that is probably ancestral to deer.[citation needed] They originated in the early Oligocene epoch and disappeared in the Pliocene. Most species lacked antlers, though some were found in later species. The musk deer are, however, still placed in a separate family.


While they have been traditionally classified as members of the deer family (as the subfamily "Moschinae") and all the species were classified as one species (under Moschus moschiferus), recent studies indicated that moschids are more closely related to bovids (antelope and oxen).[4] The following taxonomy is after Prothero (2007)[5]



  1. ^ University of Michigan Museum of Zoology - Animal Diversity Web - Moschus (musk deer) Classification http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/classification/Moschus.html#Moschus
  2. ^ Frädrich, Hans (1984). Macdonald, D., ed. The Encyclopedia of Mammals. New York: Facts on File. pp. 518–9. ISBN 0-87196-871-1. 
  3. ^ Wild Russia, Discovery Channel
  4. ^ Molecular and Morphological Phylogenies of Ruminantia and the Alternative Position of the Moschidae http://www.isem.cnrs.fr/IMG/pdf/Hassanin_2003-SystBiol.pdf
  5. ^ Prothero, 2007 (p. 221-226)
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