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Meet the Musk Ox, Climate Change(s) Survivor (And Evidence-Bearer)

Who would have thought…it seems that the largest mammal of North America, Ovibos moschatus or Musk Ox (actually, a big big kind of sheep) really does like it hot, even if it’s usually found around Canada and Greenland: to the point of disappearing from Europe, Asia and Alaska in the late XIX/early XX century due to climate change, a turn to cold that is.

For all its funny amounts of hair, in fact, the Musk Ox is not exactly perfectly suited to deal with snow:

Muskoxen are poorly adapted for digging through heavy snow for food, so winter habitat is generally restricted to areas with shallow snow accumulations or areas blown free of snow.

On the other hand, there has been considerable effort put into understanding how the Musk Ox reacts to climate change. A Mar 8, 2010 PNAS study (*) used mitochondrial DNA to determine a series of environmentally-driven changes in the size of Musk Ox population, finding that

the genetic diversity of the species increased and decreased frequently over the past 65,000 years


  1. Those changes are out of sync with changes in population sizes of other similar animals, such as mammoths
  2. A 1902 New York Times article lamented the death of the one remaining Muxk Ox in the City’s zoo, because of…a cool summer
  3. Another New York Times article (from 1892) praised the Musk Ox for its ability to eat a varied range of food, and to “bear heat
  4. It has been relatively easy to reintroduce the Musk Ox to Alaska and the Svalbard Archipelago in the XX century (blue areas)

Seems perfectly reasonable to consider that the best thing that might happen to the Musk Ox is a warming of the climate. Alas, that’s not the way things have been spoken about in public, for a long time. The PNAS article from 2010 was (of course!) presented as part of a general worry about the fate of the Musk Ox in “the current climate instability“:

There’s a lot in the news about the plight of polar bears, but musk ox may be similarly at risk

In fact, it had been April 2008 when the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) decided to launch:

a four-year study to determine if climate change is affecting populations of a quintessential Arctic denizen: the rare musk ox

Fast forward to December 2010 and some changes in the WCS tones are in order:

[Dr. Joel Berger, WCS senior scientist] 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

What happened? It happened that the Musk Ox failed to comply. Rather than a weakling threatened by a 0.5C change in the average planetary temperature, Berger and colleagues discovered that:

…the quintessential example of megafaunal fortitude in the face of really bad weather is the musk ox…the animal has managed to persist through repeated climate shifts and habitat upheaval…Historical records and genetic evidence alike suggest that the musk ox is a Rasputin, “the comeback kid of the Quaternary”…They undergo periods where they really bolster their numbers for a few years, then they go down to an almost complete collapse, then later they come back like gangbusters…It would be hard to argue that musk ox are on their way out the door…

Really? Who could have guessed…no worries, though, National Geographic and the WCS are still accepting donations. And neither Science Daily nor the NGS nor the WGS will find the courage to publish an article stating the scientific evidence: “Musk Ox most likely easier to adapt to  a warmer than to a cooler climate“.


(*) Paula F. Campos, Eske Willerslev, Andrei Sher, Ludovic Orlando, Erik Axelsson, Alexei Tikhonov, Kim Aaris-Sørensen, Alex D. Greenwood, Ralf-Dietrich Kahlke, Pavel Kosintsev, Tatiana Krakhmalnaya, Tatyana Kuznetsova, Philippe Lemey, Ross Macphee, Christopher A. Norris, Kieran Shepherd, Marc A. Suchard, Grant D. Zazula, Beth Shapiro, and M. Thomas P. Gilbert. Ancient DNA analyses exclude humans as the driving force behind late Pleistocene musk ox (Ovibos moschatus) population dynamics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2010; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0907189107

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