To Understand the Elusive Musk Ox, Researchers Must Become Its Worst Fear

Musk ox have laid claim to this tundra for thousands of years, but today they face new threats. Joel Berger is determined to find out just what they are. (Courtesy of Joel Berger)

Musk ox have laid claim to this tundra for thousands of years, but today they face new threats. Joel Berger is determined to find out just what they are. (Courtesy of Joel Berger)

Joel Berger is on the hunt. Crouching on a snow-covered hillside, the conservation biologist sports a full-length cape of brown faux fur and what looks to be an oversized teddy bear head perched on a stake. Holding the head aloft in one hand, he begins creeping over the hill’s crest toward his target: a herd of huddling musk oxen.

It’s all part of a plan that Berger, who is the wildlife conservation chair at Colorado State University, has devised to help protect the enigmatic animal that roams the Alaskan wilderness. He slowly approaches the unsuspecting herd and makes note of how the musk oxen react. At what distance do they look his way? Do they run away, or stand their ground and face him? Do they charge? Each of their reactions will give him vital clues to the behavior of what has been a notoriously elusive study subject. 

Weighing up to 800 pounds, the Arctic musk ox resembles a smaller, woollier cousin of the iconic American bison. But their name is a misnomer; the creatures are more closely related to sheep and goats than oxen. These quadrupeds are perfectly adapted to the remote Arctic wasteland, sporting a coat of thick fur that contains an insulating under layer to seal them away from harsh temperatures. 

Perhaps most astonishing is how ancient these beasts are, having stomped across the tundra for a quarter of a million years relatively unchanged. "They roamed North America when there were giant lions, when there were woolly mammoths," Berger told NPR's Science Friday earlier this year, awe evident in his voice. "And they're the ones that have hung on." They travel in herds of 10 or more, scrounging the barren landscape in search of lichen, grasses, roots and moss.

But despite their adaptations and resilience, musk oxen face many modern threats, among them human hunting, getting eaten by predators like grizzlies and wolves, and the steady effects of climate change. Extreme weather events—dumps of snow, freezing rain or high temperatures that create snowy slush—are especially tough on musk oxen. “With their short legs and squat bodies," they can't easily bound away like a caribou, explains Jim Lawler, an ecologist with the National Parks Service.

In the 19th century, over-hunting these beasts for their hides and meat led to a statewide musk ox extinction—deemed "one of the tragedies of our generation" in a 1923 New York Times article. At the time, just 100 musk oxen remained in North America, trudging across the Canadian Arctic. In 1930, the U.S. government shipped 34 animals from Greenland to Alaska's Nunivak Island, hoping to save a dwindling species.

It worked: by 2000, roughly 4,000 of the charismatic beasts roamed the Alaskan tundra. Yet in recent years that growth has slowed, and some populations have even started to decline. 

Which brings us back to how little we know about musk oxen. Thanks to their tendency to live in sparse groupings in remote regions that are near-impossible for humans or vehicles to traverse, no one knows the reason for today’s mysterious decline. The first part of untangling the mystery is to figure out basic musk ox behavior, including how they respond to predators. 

This is why Berger is out in the Arctic cold, dressed up as a musk ox’s worst nightmare. 

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