Musk Ox: The Pleistocene Relic in Our Backyard

December 14, 2010

Despite its low profile, the musk ox has persisted through the Pleistocene exinctions, outlasting the woolly mammoth and other prehistoric mammals. WCS Senior Scientist Joel Berger studies America’s least known large mammal and its unusual survival tactics.

Consider America’s least known large mammal an Arctic antihero. That mammal is the musk ox, and despite its low profile, it survived the last ice age, unlike woolly mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and other prehistoric animals.

“People may think Pleistocene relics exist only in museums or that animals with a highly ordered social structure like elephants exist only in Africa, but actually they exist here in the American wild,” said Dr. Joel Berger, WCS senior scientist. “We’re just starting to unlock the clues that will inform the conservation of these amazing animals, and spread the word about what a national treasure they truly are.”

Berger, who has been studying musk oxen in Alaska since 2006, is looking into various factors responsible for the animals’ ability to thrive in some areas, hold stable population numbers in others, and decline in still others. He and his partners are currently evaluating the impacts of changing climate, species interactions, and nutrition to musk oxen population dynamics and distribution in Alaska.

Dr. Berger says the studies are integral to informing future conservation efforts for musk oxen and other large at-risk Arctic species. He presented his findings at the WCS Center for Global Conservation on December 6.

Read more in the New York Times story from December 13.

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