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Muskoxen – the Ice Age Survivalists

March 28, 2013
Alexander Gruzdev with laser rangefinder Director of Wrangel Island State Reserve Alexander Gruzdev getting familiar with a laser rangefinder during photo-imaging exercise (NPS photo by Joel Berger).

When we think of muskoxen, our mind immediately conjures up images of the frozen and desolate Arctic environment they inhabit. Muskoxen (Ovibos moschatus) are one of the still living Pleistocene megafauna that migrated from Asia to North America across the Bering land bridge between 200,000 and 90,000 years ago. A contemporary of the wooly mammoth this Arctic mammal is one of the survivors of the Ice Age in North America along with the bison and the pronghorn.

Because muskoxen are so unique and can tell us much about adapting to the harsh Arctic conditions, studying them and monitoring their growth is very important, especially as our climate rapidly changes. Therefore the Beringia Program in cooperation with the University of Montana and Wildlife Conservation Society are funding a study that aims to establish an ecological baseline for the Beringian muskoxen. Trans-Beringia Muskoxen – Creation of Ecological Baselines in an Era of Arctic Warming, a collaborative research project, will collect data for the muskoxen herds in Chukotka's Wrangel Island State Reserve, Alaska's Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, and Cape Krusenstern National Monument.

Photogrammetry, the study method used in this research, provides data to develop a non-invasive photo-based monitoring system of the species. This method involves the measurement of body size traits, primarily head size, from the digital photos to approximate changes in growth of young animals. Photogrammetry uses a concept of size-distance relationships and simple computation algorithms in which size measurement on photographs are translated to head size dimensions.

Muskox at the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve Muskox is laying down at the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve (NPS photo).

The Trans-Beringia Muskoxen project started in 2012 and had a very successful first year. The Wrangel Island State Reserve in Chukotka, the University of Montana, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, signed an agreement on Scientific and Technical Cooperation. The primary Russian cooperator, Dr. Alexander Gruzdev, Director of the Wrangel Island State Reserve, undertook training in photogrammetry techniques at the University of Montana and practical training at the Yellowstone National Park during the summer of 2012. The University of Montana provided their Russian partners with equipment necessary to conduct photogrammetry fieldwork on Wrangel Island. As logistics permit, the fieldwork on Wrangel Island is scheduled to begin in the spring of 2013.

On the US side the fieldwork has been conducted in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve and Cape Krusenstern National Monument in Alaska during March and April 2012 and will continue in March and April 2013. To read more about this project’s first year activities and plans for the upcoming year go the 2012 Progress Report.

Click on the words below, if you want to learn more about:

muskoxen | megafuna | photogrammetry | Trans-Beringia Muskoxen project progress report

Last Updated: March 29, 2013