On Far-Flung Wrangel Island, A Scientist Sizes up Muskoxen

It is -22 degrees Fahrenheit when I step off the Yakutia Airlines jet in Pevek, located on the East Siberian Sea in Russia’s extreme Far East. Given the temperature, I’m relieved to see that all five of my duffels have arrived, as I have no idea what this expedition holds in store. Will I be camping? Will cabins available? And what of food? One thing I’ve learned about working in Greenland or Svalbard or Arctic Alaska is to be prepared. So I have packed two warm sleeping bags, three pairs of boots, three face masks, an assortment of gloves and goggles, a massive parka, my requisite coffee, muesli, dried currants, power bars, and 35 freeze-dried meals.

Pevek — population 4,500, and the northernmost town in Russia and all of Asia — is just a way station for me and my Russian colleagues. Our destination is Wrangel Island, two hours farther by air and located in the Arctic Ocean some 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle. 

I’m not here as an adventurer, but as a scientist. Up to this point, communications about advance preparations have been sparse. Fortunately, I am accompanied by a gifted translator, Yelizaveta (Lizza) Protas. Part Russian and part American, Lizza will make certain that whatever science skills I possess will be made tangible to my Russian counterparts and, in turn, assure that I understand theirs. Lizza has never been to the Arctic, nor has she ever seen an ovtsebyk, the Russian word for the resplendent long-haired mammal we will be studying — the muskox. 

My mission is to train my Russian colleagues in the use of photogrammetry, a technique that, in this instance, will use photoimaging to understand the precise body-size proportions of muskoxen and their calves. That information will help us determine how the Wrangel Island population is faring in comparison with the populations I have studied in Arctic Alaska, a region warming faster than northeastern Siberia. I will provide my Russian colleagues with some basic photogrammetry equipment — a camera, computer, laser rangefinder, and lenses — enabling them to establish baseline physiological data for muskoxen and some other Arctic mammals. My goal is to understand how different factors affect growth in individual muskoxen. To get sufficiently accurate measurements of the heads and profiles of muskoxen from photographs, we need to get within 50 meters of our Wrangel subjects — any closer might provoke a stampede. 

Reintroduced in the 1970s, roughly 900 muskoxen now roam Wrangel Island.

Reintroduced in the 1970s, roughly 900 muskoxen now roam Wrangel Island. Joel Berger

The largest of all Arctic land animals, muskoxen once roamed the Pleistocene landscapes of Asia with woolly mammoths and woolly rhinos. Muskoxen persist in Greenland and parts of the Canadian and American Arctic, but died out in Asia during the recent past. They were returned to Siberia beginning in 1974 through a joint Russian-U.S. program, and the population on Wrangel Island today is estimated at roughly 900. A total of roughly 11,000 muskoxen now exist in the polar Ural region and Siberia. 

My efforts to understand climate and other effects on muskoxen go far beyond Wrangel, as I’ve also organized a simultaneous expedition up the frozen Chukchi coastline, some 450 miles east in Arctic Alaska. There, University of Montana graduate student Blake Lowrey and two skilled native Alaskans have already headed out for some 850 wintry miles by snow machine and traversed areas on the frozen Chukchi Sea between Alaska with Siberia. For the last six years, as part of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Beringia program to further conservation and science in this region, I’ve conducted fieldwork on muskoxen populations at two Alaskan sites, Bering Land Bridge and Cape Krusenstern. While the idea of twin Arctic journeys may appear crazy, geographical contrasts have proven exceptionally valuable in the sciences of ecology and climatology. 

After spewing fumes and struggling to get off the ground in Pevek, a Russian-made helicopter carries us to Wrangel, weighted with 3 tons of gear, 10 Russians, and me. Once on the island, our supplies are ferried by snowmobile to a central cabin. Our provisions include four rock-hard and skinned reindeer carcasses, giving me some idea of the food arrangements. 

Once at the cabin, we work with rangers to make base camp functional. The pit toilets, tucked away in an old wooden building, are filled with snow up to the roof. The door does not open. Our biological needs are destined to be met in other ways, obviously lacking the protection or privacy of a wall. Our drinking water comes from snow melted over fires fueled by the burning of wooden scraps from the camp’s numerous dilapidated buildings. 

The Russian flag flies horizontal in the stiff wind. In hills three miles distant, I can make out two sets of black blobs: ovtsebyk — muskoxen. 

This is the first of three blog posts from the field by conservation biologist Joel Berger.

Next Posts: 

Studying a Polar Menagerie on an Island in Arctic Russia

Russian-American Collaboration Carries on in Key Arctic Ecosystem