the only large ruminant in the high Arctic, the muskox has adapted well to the harsh conditions. Those conditions are changing rapidlly and new science is looking at how a changing climate is changing their diet.

The only large ruminant in the high Arctic, the muskox holds an important place in the ecosystem. Muskox have adapted well to the harsh conditions. Those conditions are changing rapidlly and new science is looking at how a changing climate is changing their diet.
Photo Credit: Peter Klaunzer/Associated Press

Muskox rump hair indicative of climate conditions and diet

Forensic scientists have long used chemical and other analyses of hair and teeth to determine such things as diet of an individual, usually for historical purposes. Now researchers at the Arctic Research Centre, Aarhus University in Denmark, are using similar techniques to determine eating habits and health of the hairy ruminants of the high Arctic.  They say that muskox diet and reproduction is also is related to climate change.

The study points out that in the tundra ecosystem, the muskox, Ovibos moschatus, plays a key role as one of few large herbivores.

2008 Muskox on Herchel Island in the Canadian high Arctic
2008 Muskox on Herchel Island in the Canadian high Arctic. They need to build up fat and energy reserves in summer to survive the winter. A snowy year is hard on them as it reduces food availability. © a Kenney

Published in the science journal “PLOS one”  on April 20, the study is called. Show Me Your Rump Hair and I Will Tell You What You Ate – The Dietary History of Muskoxen (Ovibos moschatus) Revealed by Sequential Stable Isotope Analysis of Guard Hairs”

The researchers snipped guard hairs from ten animals in Greenland and then by detecting nitrogen isotopes, were able to reconstruct diets over two and a half years.

Nitrogen levels vary according to what the animals eat, or don’t eat.

A type of bacteria (erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae) usually found in pigs and poultry was discovered for the first time in muskox in 201o on Victoria Island ant then on Banks Island, It is since believed it is responsible for some of the mortality in the populations in the Arctic.
A type of bacteria (erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae) usually found in pigs and poultry was discovered for the first time in muskox in 2010 on Victoria Island ant then on Banks Island, It is since believed it is responsible for some of the mortality in the populations in the Arctic, and its presence is another sign of a warming Arctic as new pathogens move north. © CBC

The animals have to build up and store fat in the summer, for the harsh winter months.  A snowy year means less food availability and more reliance on fat reserves.

© Mosbacher et al

GRAPH ABOVE: Shown in the top is the muskox (Ovibos moschatus) dietary history inferred from the standardized nitrogen isotope ratios (δ15N) in guard hairs from 10 muskox cows and their mean (black line), covering approximately 2.5 years with a temporal resolution of app. 9 days. Below the stable isotope ratios are shown the ambient environmental conditions: Mean air temperature (°C), mean snow depth (m) and meadow productivity (NDVI) from the study area in the 9-day intervals. The guard hair dietary chronology matched the local environmental fluctuations, and included almost three full summer (high δ15N ratios) and winter periods (low δ15N ratios). Compared to summer diets, winter diets exhibit more pronounced inter-annual variation

As the females must have enough reserves for pregnancy,  food availability also plays a role in reproduction; with lots of food meaning more calves in spring, and less food meaning fewer or no calves.

The researchers say the study provides a first glimpse at how changing temperatures and snow conditions affect the animal’s diet, and therefore production of calves.

Quoted in Eureka News, lead researcher Jasper Mosbacher says, “With climate changing twice as fast in the Arctic than elsewhere, and with declining muskox populations in the Arctic, understanding how a changing climate is affecting a key species in the Arctic is crucia

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