Science, Tech & Environment

Watch one scientist’s unorthodox approach to getting 'inside the mind of a musk ox’

Consider, for a moment, the musk ox.

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The ancient animal looks a bit like a shaggy, long-haired bison and can be found roaming the cold, Arctic landscapes of places like Alaska, northern Canada and Greenland

Musk oxen “actually went extinct in Alaska in the 1890s, and the state brought them back,” says wildlife biologist Joel Berger, a professor at Colorado State University and senior scientist for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.

Now, the animals are “doing reasonably well” on protected federal lands, he says. “But they're unchanged from what they were a quarter of a million years ago.”

In a changing climate, scientists like Berger aren’t sure how musk oxen will fare. To find out, Berger has developed an unorthodox approach to observing the rarely seen animal in its remote, natural habitat: He goes undercover as a natural musk ox predator, the grizzly bear. The technique was featured in Science Friday’s latest video, “Bear in Mind the Muskox.”

“So, the central goal is to get inside the mind of a musk ox,” Berger says. “But in this case, we're interested in how they respond to grizzly bears because grizzly bears are expanding their range into some of the Arctic islands.”

By approaching a herd of musk oxen in the guise of a grizzly bear, Berger explains he can study whether herds will get spooked and run, stay and defend themselves, or even recognize the threat at all. (He also uses a caribou costume as a nonthreatening “control.”) In places like Alaska, which permits musk ox hunting, Berger hopes the data can inform conservation efforts.

"Are male [musk oxen] more likely to charge?" he wonders. "Are females likely to run? What about the young ones in the group? And so, we're gauging their response."

Berger says that ideally, he wants to get within 50 yards of a herd. “So, I've got a Davy Crockett cape that's draped over most of my body,” he explains. “I'm wearing a little daypack, so I have a hump on my back just like a grizzly bear has a hump, and I'm crawling on all four, and from my head, I have a Styrofoam bear head and I use that to navigate.”

Video producer Luke Groskin filmed Berger at work. “I'm going to back up just a second,” he says, “because you can't just walk up to a herd of musk oxen way off in the distance. You’ve got to strategize, and Joel is very good about that.”

As Berger explains in the video, grizzly bears don’t head straight into a group of musk oxen. “They meander, they go back and forth, and so I meander a little bit.”

Once Berger has measured the herd’s threat response — noting the distance at which the first musk ox notices him, then when half the herd takes notice, and so on — he photographs the musk oxen. Later on, he’ll examine the images on a computer to assess the health of young musk oxen in the herd.

“Just as scientists measure tree rings to look at growth, we're measuring the head sizes of young musk oxen — 1-, 2- and 3-year-olds — so we can look incrementally at how different [kinds] of weather events affect the growth and how that occurs across time.”

While many of Berger’s musk oxen observations go smoothly, he’s had a few close calls over the years. “On seven occasions, males have left the group to come toward me; on three of those [occasions], those were real charges,” he says in the video.

And when facing down an angry musk ox, Berger says that traditional methods of self-defense don’t always apply: “I carry a whistle, but that's not necessarily effective. I carry pepper spray, but when it's 0 or minus 5 or 10 [degrees] out and the wind is blowing pepper spray, that doesn't work. A gun is stupid because we're not there to shoot animals.”

Instead, Berger has had lifesaving luck with a different tactic. “The one thing that works is if I ‘self-detonate’ and the cape goes in one direction, the head goes in the other and I stand up, the musk ox, if they’re charging, get very confused and then I'm safe,” he says.

The danger is all in the name of science — and conserving a species that has been roaming the planet for millennia. As he explains in the film, musk oxen “are symptomatic of an entire system and array of species, of lifestyles.”

“And if we start to understand and appreciate their role in the system, then there’s … a reason that I think we should care or have compassion because they’re part of a landscape that predates us by many millions of years.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.