Getting Inside The Head Of A Muskox
Consider, for a moment, the musk ox.
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.”
Joel Berger is a professor at Colorado State University and is a senior scientist for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.
Luke Groskin is Science Friday’s video producer. He’s on a mission to make you love spiders and other odd creatures.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.
Believe it or not, there are some species of animals that scientists still know very little about. And I’m not talking about some tiny insect in the Amazon. I’m talking about big mammals, right here in the US. For instance, the muskox is an ancient ungulate– an animal with hooves– that have thrived in remote areas of Alaska for centuries.
But as we know, the Arctic environment is changing rapidly. And scientists don’t know how the Muskox will fare in a warmer climate. But how do you get to know a rarely seen animal living in a remote part of the world? Well, you could view these animals from an airplane or perhaps capture and tag some of them to study. But my next guest prefers a different method– something more unconventional, shall we say. He dresses up like their natural predator– a grizzly bear. It’s like that old saying, if you can’t beat them, join them.
And joining me now is Joel Berger, a senior scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society and Cox Chair of Wildlife Conservation at Colorado State University. And Joel’s worked with the muskox and the subject of a new macroscope video produced by our own Luke Groskin, who also joins me today.
Welcome back, Luke!
LUKE GROSKIN: Hi– hi, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Joel, for those of us who haven’t seen the video on our website yet, can you start by telling us what the muskox looks like?
JOEL BERGER: So hi Ira. Hi, Luke.
JOEL BERGER: Hey, so muskox are the largest polar land animal in the world. They’re big– about 3/4 the size of a bison. They have long draping hair. People know that they roamed with woolly mammoths. And so they have that kind of an appearance– long draping hair, cold adapted. They live in herds.
IRA FLATOW: They lived in herds. Luke, you met up with Joel in a remote part of Alaska to film his research. What was that like?
LUKE GROSKIN: Oh, it was pretty surreal. I mean, in order to just meet up with Joel out there, we had to connect with him in GPS and figure out coordinates. We had to go out for a couple– an hour and a half on snow machines– snowmobiles. And it was cold, and it was a bit of an adventure.
And so we’re out there in the middle of nowhere, and Joel rides up with his research partner, Doctor Allen Chang. And he just– just to be clear, he–it looks like he kind looks like Buffalo Bill Cody but in Patagonia. That’s how I would describe how Joel looks.
IRA FLATOW: Central casting from [INAUDIBLE].
LUKE GROSKIN: And he’s very unassuming; he just comes up and says, Hey, Luke. Next to meet ya. And let’s go see some muskox– muskoxen. And we just went off from there. It was very surreal experience.
IRA FLATOW: Well, Joel, tell us, the way you go about studying them, as I mentioned, is that the most interesting aspect. Describe how you do that.
JOEL BERGER: So the central goal is to get inside the mind of a muskox. And it’s like, how do you know what they’re thinking? And you don’t. And so what you try to do is break their visual field. And you can do that by looking like a muskox, 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. And so I dress up as a grizzly bear and approach on all fours to understand whether the herd is going to get scared, whether they recognize I’m a threat, whether they’re going to stay and defend themselves, whether they’re going to turn coat– not literally– but run.
IRA FLATOW: OK, describe what you look like. You have a– do you have a cape over you? You dress– what is it– what do you look like?
JOEL BERGER: OK, so I’ve got a Davy Crockett cape that’s draped over my– most of my body. I’m wearing a little day pack, so I have a hump on my back just like a grizzly bear has a hump. And I’m crawling on all four. And for my head, I have a Styrofoam bear head. And I use that to navigate. And with Luke Groskins help, we put a GoPro camera on it. And so as I’m approaching, we’re also looking through the eyes of the GoPro trying to get a sense– are these muskoxen scared, are males more likely to charge, are females likely to run, what about the young ones in their group. And so we’re gauging their response.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, so Luke, take it from here. You’re– you saw first hand how this is.
JOEL BERGER: Well, actually, I’m going to back up just a second. Because you can’t just walk up to a herd of bison– of muskoxen way off in the distance. You You’ve got to strategize, and Joel’s very good about that. He is trying to figure out– OK, so if we go around on this side of mountain then maybe they won’t see us. So we climbed up a– like a hill mountain, and we get up there, and all of a sudden Joel just kind of drops down onto his– and slides down the mountain back towards us really dramatically. He’s like, get down, get down, get down. And he’s whispering. And he comes up to us, and he kind of explains the situation.
JOEL BERGER: The animals are right there. So as soon as the bear pops over, they’re going to split, usually they don’t run. But they’re going to split.
LUKE GROSKIN: And then, of course, in the back of my head I was like, no, no that can’t happen. We definitely need to get this. But he’s an expert, he’s a pro, we trust him. He gets dressed up, and then he approaches. And I was just kind of amazed with how there’s a method to this. This is not just a man dressed up in a bear costume approaching muskoxen. He’s very specifically– he knows when the mature bull in the group is eyeballing him. And it– there’s a level of safety that he has, an awareness that he has that I definitely did not have.
IRA FLATOW: Joel why is it so easy to fool the muskox with just the– don’t they smell you verses see you– your costume?
JOEL BERGER: So they might smell me, and, as you know, the name of the show is Science Friday. And so if we’re all putting on our science hats, I need a control. And that control is a caribou. And so I have a fake caribou. And so the smell is the same. I’m kind of stinky because I haven’t had a shower, and I’ve been living up in the Arctic for awhile. And there’s no running water.
LUKE GROSKIN: That’s true
JOEL BERGER: And so the muskox are getting Joel Berger no matter what they’re doing. But the other thing that they’re getting is a difference. They’re getting a caribou and they’re getting a grizzly bear.
IRA FLATOW: Wow, and so they–
JOEL BERGER: At different times.
IRA FLATOW: So if they got ornery at you and decided to charge, what do you do then Joel?
JOEL BERGER: Well, that’s been an issue dealing with permits. And for me to get my permits, I pretty much have to assure that I’m going to be safe. Because they don’t want in, both the state of Alaska and the US government don’t want an idiot in a grizzly bear suit getting killed. And so basically, I carry a whistle. But that’s not necessarily effective. I carry pepper spray. But when it’s 0 or minus 5 or 10 out, and the wind is blowing, pepper spray doesn’t work. A gun is stupid because we’re not there to shoot animals. But 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 muskox, if they’re charging, get very confused. and then I’m safe.
IRA FLATOW: So just by taking off your custom they see, oh, it’s no longer a grizzly bear, it’s a person. Do they know what a person is?
JOEL BERGER: Well, I’m still here Ira, and so that’s a good sign.
IRA FLATOW: Were you a little scared, Luke, when this started going on? Did you have any fear or trepidation about doing this?
LUKE GROSKIN: I was more concerned that they would get spooked, and then when Joel finishes that he gets photometric data. He gets actual photos of them. And that part of the, kind of, experiment we kind of– he told us to kind of go around on the other side. And then the muskoxen won’t run that way. That was the only part where I was a little bit like, uh oh, wait, wait, I’m moving away from you now? But I was never really kind of scared for him.
The only thing– there was a little part of me though, that was in the back of my head being like, what would happen if a bear came by right now? What would happen then? I mean that sounds a little bit scary. But the chances of that happening are very, very slim.
JOEL BERGER: Well, and the best news on that is the mating season is not until June, and we were there in March.
IRA FLATOW: So then they would– would the bulls be protective? If you were there then, in the mating season.
JOEL BERGER: Well, I was thinking about the bear. Yeah, the bear being interest it us.
IRA FLATOW: Luke talked about the data and taking pictures. What kind of pictures were you taking? What kind of data are you collecting?
JOEL BERGER: OK, so good question. So the broader picture that we’re interested in is how climate change is affecting a cold adapted species. And so just as scientists measure tree rings to look at growth, we’re measuring the head sizes of young muskoxen, one, two, and three-year-olds, so we can look incrementally at how different kind of weather events affect the growth and how that occurs across time. So we’re photographing animals. Just like if you have a two-year-old baby, a four-year-old baby, in a six-year-old, you can measure their head sizes. And you can figure out how normally they grow. But then if they’re different or traumatic events, like they go without food for two months or their mother is not lactating. So that’s why we’re doing it– getting the head sizes and measuring them digitally on a computer.
JOEL BERGER: So you come back to the same herd– is it right to call them a herd?
JOEL BERGER: It is right, yeah. And we develop these profiles. We’ve done this in the Arctic– Alaskan arctic– for nine years. We’ve also done this in the Russian arctic for two out of the last three years.
IRA FLATOW: How did you get into this line of work?
JOEL BERGER: Well, I grew up in L.A.
IRA FLATOW: Well, that makes sense. [INAUDIBLE]
JOEL BERGER: And I needed a different way to look at the world, and so I left L.A.
IRA FLATOW: It’s that simple, huh?
JOEL BERGER: No, life is not simple. We know that. Thank you.
IRA FLATOW: And so how do you get training in this work to do this?
JOEL BERGER: I did a post docket Smithsonian Institution. I did my PhD in Colorado. And then I spent a lot of time on different continents working with very talented scientists looking at different ways to understand how we do conservation and bring the natural world into something of relevance in our world.
IRA FLATOW: Our number 844-724-8255 if you’d like to talk about these guys out there with the muskoxen. But also I understand, Joel, there are other animals that you studied the same way.
JOEL BERGER: We worked on rhinos in Namibia and in Zimbabwe. I’ve worked on bison in North America. We’ve done some work in Central Asia with wild yaks and an endangered antelope called saiga. So yeah, I’ve been able to have some opportunities in life to work in different parts of the world on spectacular species.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with a Joel Berger and Luke Groskin. Joel is a senior scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society and Cox Chair of a Conservation Biology at Colorado State University. Luke, you’ve gone to a lot of different places, filmed a lot of stuff. How does this rate? You had to get on an airplane, and this was not an easy place to get to was it?
JOEL BERGER: Yeah, this was a real– I mean getting out to see these animals is a real adventure. You can’t– and though, especially in the winter. I mean, riding a snowmobile for 10 hours when you’ve never actually ridden one before is it’s not just sitting back.
IRA FLATOW: Back breaking.
LUKE GROSKIN: Yeah, it’s backbreaking. And you gain a real respect for the biologists, and the park workers, and the people that are out there studying these animals. Because it’s cold, it’s uncomfortable, and they don’t come– they usually are staying outdoors or in limited shelter, and very, very, very cold conditions. And yeah, they’re doing it. It’s pretty impressive.
IRA FLATOW: And Joel, is there a hunting season or any hunting allowed?
JOEL BERGER: The state of Alaska has some off take of a muskox for subsistence use, meaning meat. And at one point, they allowed more males to be harvested than females. But the state was very prudent and conservative. And so they’ve cut back on some of that as well.
IRA FLATOW: In case you’re just joining us, we’re talking with the Joel Berger and Luke Groskin on Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International.
Luke let’s talk about the video.
LUKE GROSKIN: Sure.
IRA FLATOW: It’s an exciting video. I’ve seen it already. It’s got great music, it’s got great– it’s got drama.
LUKE GROSKIN: Sure.
IRA FLATOW: I’m not quite sure what I’m going to see it.
LUKE GROSKIN: Well, I mean, the muskoxen themselves are kind of the stars of it. And I found about this species long time ago. And when you see them, they look like these big dramatic animals. And they’re super charismatic because they really do look like they don’t belong in the modern era. They look like they’re from the Ice Age. And it’s just impressive to me that they’ve made it this far. And I wanted to meet up with the guy that studies them.
IRA FLATOW: And now Joel, you describe the muskox as an ancient species. Yeah, I mean, when you say ancient, what does that mean?
JOEL BERGER: Well, so the muskox goes back several hundred thousands of years. They actually went extinct in Alaska in the 1890s, and the state brought them back. And now they’re doing reasonably well in a couple of National Park service units where I work. One is called Bering Land Bridge, the other’s called Cape Krusenstern, named after a Russian naval officer. But they’re doing OK now. But they’re unchanged from what they were a quarter of a million years ago.
IRA FLATOW: I just got a couple interesting calls. Let’s go to South Bend, Indiana. Randy, hi, welcome to Science Friday.
IRA FLATOW: Hi there, go ahead.
RANDY: I’m wondering if you studied the herd of muskox that tends to cause some havoc in the town of Nome.
JOEL BERGER: OK. [INAUDIBLE] So the town of Nome is where there are a lot of muskox that roam, actually, near the runway at the airport. And also near where there are 4,000 people. And we’ve looked at them there, but we haven’t focused on them there. So that’s the simple answer.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Palmer, Alaska to William. William, welcome to Science Friday.
WILLIAM: Yeah, OK. Back in 1929, my dad came to Fairbanks to go to college, and his summer job with another fellow was protecting the muskox herd because they weren’t fenced in. And the job entailed camping out by the muskox herd, and shooting a bear anytime the bear would try to get in and killed the calves. And as he explained it, the problem was that if a bear could break the circle, because when they were threatened they would circle up facing out, and if a bear could get in the center, they wouldn’t just kill a calf, they would kill every calf they get a hold of. And the problem was, it would set back the herd a whole generation. So the university paid them to camp out during the summer and shoot bears if the bears got in a position to threaten the herd. And then they would take turns going into town for supplies every week and just move their camp as the herd moved.
IRA FLATOW: Lost him there. Have you heard about that Joel? Was that a common practice?
JOEL BERGER: I think at that point it was. It’s not today. But certainly, we know bears can be good predators. And the muskox live in these defensive social herds for a reason.
IRA FLATOW: Are you sensitive Joel, to the political debate over what is essential research that this might look like something a Congress person could point out and say, look what our tax dollars are paying for, studying muskox.
JOEL BERGER: I’m quite sensitive to that, yes, I’ve thought a bit about it.
IRA FLATOW: And your reaction.
JOEL BERGER: My reaction is very straight forward. To think about the fact that we have more people who visit National Parks every year, something like 280 million people. That’s more than all baseball, football, and basketball combined. We have more people who go to zoos every year than all professional sports. The same for museums. And so when we look at the fabric of America, and America’s dedication to wildlife and wildlife conservation and wildlife viewing, we know that it’s important in our society. And if we can understand animals better, and we can do conservation better, we know that it’s not just for the animals. But we’re all part of the same world.
IRA FLATOW: That’s a great way to sum it up. Joel Berger, senior scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, Cox Chair of Wildlife Conservation Colorado State University. And Luke Groskin, Science Friday video producer. Thank you both.
JOEL BERGER: Thank you Ira.
IRA FLATOW: And if you want to see my guest, Joel Berger, dressed up as a grizzly in the name of science, you can check out Luke’s video. It’s on our website. Head over to sciencefriday.com/muskox. That’s spelled m-u-s-k-o-x. sciencefriday.com/muskox.
One last thing before we go. Help Science Friday prepare for the solar eclipse this August, this summer, by completing a short quiz at sciencefriday.com/survey. That’s sciencefriday.com/survey. A total eclipse of the sun, very rare. We’d like to know what you think. BJ Liederman composed our theme music. Our thanks to our production partners at the studios of the City University of New York. Have a great weekend. I’m Ira Flatow in New York.
Katie Feather is a former SciFri producer and the proud mother of two cats, Charleigh and Sadie.