Yak Facts



Modified: 31 May 2023

What is a Yak, Himalayan Yak

Yaks have an important place in the society of the Himalayas and its neighboring regions. Not only do they make up an important part of people’s livelihood, but they also make it possible for people to live in the region in the first place. Learn exactly what is a yak in these 30 Yak facts.

  1. Depending on the breed, yaks stand on average at a height of around 122 cm.
  2. Male yaks typically have horns that measure from 48 to 99 cm long.
  3. Female yaks have shorter horns than males, measuring from 27 to 64 cm long.
  4. Domesticated yaks can reach a weight of up to 585 kg.
  5. Wild yaks can grow even heavier, with some specimens weighing up to 1000 kg.
  1. Yaks first evolved between 5 to 1 million years ago.
  2. The yaks migrating to North America during the Ice Ages may have become the ancestors of the American bison.
  3. Humans have domesticated the yaks for thousands of years.
  4. Yaks in Tibet provide the main source for cloth, meat, and milk.
  5. They also make up the most common beast of burden in the region.
  6. Yak droppings also make up the most common fuel source in the treeless Tibetan Plateau.
  7. Carl Linnaeus gave them their scientific name, Bos grunniens, in 1766.
  8. Scientists later reserved that name for domesticated yaks and gave wild yaks a different name, Bos mutus.
  9. Chinese records, going back 2000 years, point to crossbreeding experiments between yaks and cows.
  10. In modern times, yaks have successfully crossbred with American bison, and Indian bison, among other kinds of cattle.
  1. Yaks have no known subspecies.
  2. They will only eat grass, and would rather starve than eat anything else
  3. Despite what popular fiction says, yaks don’t actually smell bad.
  4. Yak wool’s natural odor resistance actually makes up one of its selling points.
  5. India has a yak research center at Dirang, with its own yak farm at a height of 2.75 km above sea level.
Table of Contents

Yaks live across a large stretch of land across Asia.

Most yaks live on the Tibetan Plateau, which stretches over an estimated area of 2.5 million km². This gives yaks a presence not just in Tibet itself, but also in the neighboring Chinese provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan.

The plateau also extends into India, giving yaks a presence in the state of Himachal Pradesh, as well as the Kashmir Territory. Bhutan also lies on the Tibetan Plateau, with large numbers of yaks living in the country as a result. Outside of the plateau, yaks live in neighboring countries such as Mongolia, Myanmar, and even further north, in Russia’s Siberian region.

The yak’s name has a story of its own.

This name comes from the Tibetan གཡག, which transliterates into English as g.yag, but is used by Tibetans only for males of the species. For females, they use གནག, which transliterates into English as g.nag.

In English, however, yak remains in use for both males and females, with gender differences instead referred to using the generic bull and cow.

Yaks have a distinctive appearance.

A yak’s fur makes up its own most distinctive feature, as it grows both thick and long, hanging down past the animal’s belly. The color varies between the species, with wild yaks having a uniform black or dark brown color.

In contrast, the color of domesticated yaks varies from brown, grey, roan, piebald, and white. They also commonly have patches of rusty brown or cream against the rest of their fur. A yak also has a long tail similar to those of horses, in contrast to the tufted tails common to most cattle.

They also make distinctive sounds of their own.

These animals do not make the lowing or mooing characteristic of cattle, instead grunting or even squeaking to communicate with each other. This actually inspired their scientific name, with Bos grunniens literally meaning grunting ox.

The scientific name of the wild yak, Bos mutus, also has a similar origin but referencing a misunderstanding on scientists’ part. Specifically, it means mute ox, out of early scientists’ belief that wild yaks could not make sounds. In fact, they do make sounds of their own, the same as those made by their domesticated cousins.

Stuffed Wild Yak
Photo by Jim from Wikipedia

Yaks have unique evolutionary adaptations of their own.

Their lungs and hearts are bigger, compared to other kinds of cattle, having evolved them to better live in the low oxygen air of their high-altitude homeland. Unlike other animals, yaks also use fetal hemoglobin in their blood even after they’re born. This too resulted in an adaptation to their homeland, as fetal hemoglobin carries oxygen better than other kinds.

Yaks also feature thick layers of fat under their skin, and have no sweat glands at all, in order to deal with the cold of their homeland. That said, while these adaptations make them very suitable for their habitat, it makes things difficult for them when they leave. They find it harder to breathe in the richer oxygen of the air in the lowlands, and overheat quickly if temperatures rise above the average 15°C that they’re used to.

Yaks mate once a year.

Mating takes place in the summer, usually between the months of July and September. Yak bulls fight each other for dominance during the mating season, with the winners gaining the right to mate with yak cows.

These yak cows usually stay pregnant for as long as nine months and give birth to a single calf, which can walk within 10 minutes of childbirth. They depend on their mother’s milk for a full year, after which they start grazing on grass, at which point they count as adults.

There are sports dedicated to yaks.

Even today, yak races remain a popular and also traditional form of entertainment in both Tibet and Mongolia. More recently, Mongolians have adapted the game of polo for yaks, riding them instead of horses for the game. In India as well, yak skiing has become a recent trend, using them to pull skiers up a hill and then down again.

Their blood supposedly has healing properties.

This comes from Nepal, where certain communities hold annual festivals where they shallowly cut a yak on the neck. People then gather and drink the blood from the cut, which they believe can heal body pains, gastritis, and even jaundice. Once everyone who participated in the festival has drunk, they then patch the yak’s wound.

Yak milk has many uses.

Mongolians, Nepalis, and Tibetans use their milk to make various cheeses. The Tibetans also use it to make butter, which they use in cooking, as well as a base for butter tea. They also use the butter as fuel for lamps, and even as material to make butter sculptures for religious purposes.

Yak Milk Cheese
Photo by Krish Dulal from Wikipedia

Crossbreeding yaks have yielded poor results.

For one thing, male hybrids always end up born sterile, while females tend to produce only small amounts of milk. The animals also always tend to have short lifespans and suffer from sickly dispositions. This makes them useful only as meat sources, and ultimately of poor economic value.