Scientist Wears Polar Bear Costume, Muskoxen Charge


Photo: Joel Berger of the Wildlife Conservation Society wears a polar bear suit to gauge the response of muskoxen to a "predator." The white gloves that came with the suit were not warm enough, so Berger wore thicker red mittens. Credit: Sergey Abarok It isn't every day that a researcher dons a polar bear costume in the name of science, but a unique study taking place now on Wrangel Island in the Arctic calls for it. And another thing: The researchers in costume must stand in front of angry muskoxen to see how the large horned mammals react.

The reason for the study -- funded by the Trust for Mutual Understanding and the National Park Service's Shared Beringian Heritage Program -- is that melting sea ice, driven by climate change, is forcing more polar bears to hunt on land instead of on ice, as the bears generally do. The fast changing predator-prey dynamics on the island raise concern since the changes are unprecedented.

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No one is certain how the polar bear increase will affect muskox numbers, or how the muskox will influence polar bear behavior. As video taken by the researchers shows, a herd of angry muskoxen can be formidable in its own right.

"We believe that once our analyses are complete, we'll come away with much greater insights about the novelty of prey-predator interactions that result from climate change and what this means more broadly across the Arctic," project leader Joel Berger of the Wildlife Conservation Society Arctic Beringia Program and Colorado State University said.

Berger and colleagues Alexander Gruzdev, Ilya Borisovich, Igor Oleinikov, Grigory Nikolaevich, and Sergey Abarok, through their work, are helping to guide conservation and management efforts in the Arctic. Wrangel Island Federal Reserve is remote, located approximately 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Russia.

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In addition to gauging muskoxen responses to "predators," the scientists are using a technique called photogrammetry to photograph the head sizes of young muskoxen, to measure their annual growth. This information is then related to different climatic variables. The measurements are helping to determine how the muskoxen population at Wrangel Island is faring compared to populations in Arctic Alaska.

Hunting of muskoxen is permitted in that part of Alaska, where warming is happening faster than in northeastern Siberia. Taken together, all of the data will be used to help conserve the species by identifying and addressing the specific factors that are limiting muskoxen health, growth and survival.

Berger concluded, "It's humbling to be in a land so raw and so beautiful; it's a piece of the planet where one can watch the Pleistocene still unfold with many of the players who shared the environment with mammoths."

Climate change is forcing more polar bears in the Arctic to seek prey on land rather than ice, so researchers are studying how muskoxen on remote Wrangel Island Federal Reserve, 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Russia, react to potential predators. As part of an ongoing study, project leader Joel Berger of the Wildlife Conservation Society Arctic Beringia Program and Colorado State University dressed as a polar bear and approached a muskoxen herd in a windstorm.

Credit: Sergey Abarok

At first, the muskoxen ran for their lives when they saw Berger dressed in the polar bear suit.

Credit: Sergey Abarok

The muskoxen were not always so passive, however. One of the muskoxen charged two of the scientists on Berger's team, which included Russian researchers Alexander Gruzdev, Ilya Borisovich, Igor Oleinikov, Grigory Nikolaevich and Sergey Abarok.

Credit: Lizza Protas WCS

One of the muskoxen charges was captured on video. Explaining the study, Berger said, "Our goal -- in consort with our Russian collaborators -- has been to contrast how the polar bears of Wrangel deal with muskoxen and, just as critically, how muskoxen deal with them in return."

Two male muskoxen were not pleased when Berger approached them. Their species is a Pleistocene relic that survived the woolly mammoths and woolly rhinos that once roamed the northern Siberian tundra.

Credit: Sergey Abarok

The research team includes dog "Sam," who was taken for a snowmobile ride of about 50 miles to shift basecamps with Ilya Borisovich and Igor Oleinikov.

Credit: Sergey Abarok

Sam frustrated a polar bear that wandered too close to base camp. Dogs like Sam, who was monitored during this scary encounter, are sometimes used to warn and protect scientists if the researchers are in a dangerous field situation. No dogs were present during the muskoxen studies.

Credit: Grigory Nikolaevich

A polar bear left footprints in the Wrangel Island snow. Alexander Gruzdev, director of the protected area that once housed Russian miners and fishermen, said, "The land is pristine and hosts wolves and wolverines, polar bears and muskoxen. If ever there was a place of Arctic grandeur, it is Wrangel."

Credit: Joel Berger

A mammoth tusk and whale rib bone adorn the side of a building that the scientists sometimes use. They are a reminder of the mammoths that once thrived in the region before their extinction. In the background is an icy bay that extends into the Chukchi Sea.

Credit: Joel Berger

The Northern lights made a dramatic appearance over the scientists' camp on Wrangel Island.

Credit: Sergey Abarok