Muskox – I’m a Survivor!

Muskox – I’m a Survivor!

Muskox – I’m a Survivor!

4 minute read – 

The muskox is an adaptable animal. In the face of climate change a generalist diet with a slow metabolism helped this species survive through the last ice age and to today while other megafauna, like woolly mammoths, went extinct.

During Beringia there were two types of muskox present on the extensive grassland biome – Ovibos moschatus, the tundra muskox that roams today, and Bootherium bombifrons, the helmeted muskox. 

The helmeted muskox did not survive the Pleistocene even though it was endemic to North America and had a wider range than its relative, the tundra muskox. If you could imagine this Beringian muskox was taller and more slender than those of the living tundra muskox and its wider range spanned an area from Texas all the way to Alaska. Like many of the horn and antler bearing animals of this era it was all about BIG, oversized, dramatic displays for sexual selection. The helmeted muskox had longer deeper skulls that supported higher and more flaring horns than the tundra muskox. But, size didn’t get selected as most important for survival in this dramatically changing and climatically unstable landscape. It seems not only was smaller horns preferred through evolution but overall body size too – the less compact nature of this muskox might have played a role in its extinction along with many other large herbivorous mammals of its’ time.  

The tundra muskox crossed the Bering land bridge from Eurasia into North America about 100,000 years ago. A more focused range and smaller size as well as thicker coat than that of the Bootherium, the Ovibos remains a resident of the Arctic landscape to this day. What’s pretty incredible is that these muskox have changed, genetically, very little since their days on the Mammoth Steppe. The muskox of today’s Arctic Archipelago are however much less genetically diverse than those that lived during the last Ice Age which suggests they were not completely unscathed during this time of climatic instability. Significant population and geographical range shrinkage restricted the tundra muskox to Greenland and much of the western Northern American Arctic populations are reintroductions from those limited genetics. The two types of muskox of the late Pleistocene did not mix genetically and the reduction of both species, including the extinction of the helmeted muskox, seem to exclude humans as a driving force behind these population dynamics into the Holocene.

Ovibos moschatus, the tundra muskox, was able to ride the waves of climate change over tens of thousands of years. Their adaptability to variability, including climate and thus vegetation quantity and quality, fostered this large Ice Age mammal to survive a formidable narrow niche of the Arctic biome to present day. What might the future hold for the muskox?

Photo credit L. Caskenette

Resources:

Thanks to Dr. Grant Zazula for taking the time share incredible insights into the past, into Beringia with the YWP crew! 

Ancient DNA analyses exclude humans as the driving force behind late Pleistocene musk ox (Ovibos moschatus) population dynamics. Paula F. Camposa, Eske Willersleva, Andrei Sherb, Ludovic Orlandoc, Erik Axelssona, Alexei Tikhonovd, Kim Aaris-Sørensena, Alex D. Greenwoode, Ralf-Dietrich Kahlkef, Pavel Kosintsevg, Tatiana Krakhmalnayah, Tatyana Kuznetsovai, Philippe Lemeyj, Ross MacPheek, Christopher A. Norrisl, Kieran Shepherdm, Marc A. Suchardn, Grant D. Zazulao, Beth Shapirop, and M. Thomas P. Gilberta.

Musk ox (Ovibos moschatus) of the mammoth steppe: tracing palaeodietary and palaeoenvironmental changes over the last 50,000 years using carbon and nitrogen isotopic analysis Maanasa Raghavan,, Gonçalo Espregueira Themudo, Colin I. Smith, Grant Zazula, Paula F. Campos

Tundra Muskox

Helemeted Muskox

Lindsay Caskenette

Lindsay Caskenette

Manager of Visitor Services

Lindsay joined the Wildlife Preserve team March 2014. Originally from Ontario, she came to the Yukon in search of new adventures and new career challenges. Lindsay holds a degree in Environmental Studies with honours from Wilfrid Laurier University and brings with her a strong passion to share what nature, animals and the environment can teach us.

867-456-7400
lindsay@yukonwildlife.ca

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A Beginner’s Guide to iNaturalist:

A Beginner’s Guide to iNaturalist:

A Beginner’s Guide to iNaturalist:

This article was made possible thanks to support from the Environmental Awareness Fund. Engage and educate yourself in this 10-part blog series, about Yukon Biodiversity.

5 minute Read and 8:58 minute Video

How to explore the biodiversity in your own backyard:

Hey there! Are you feeling isolated (and who isn’t in this remote territory, during this plague year, in the cold months)? Would you like to connect to nature? Have you considered iNaturalist? It’s a groovy app available on your phone or computer and it’s essentially an encyclopedia to the wide variety of living organisms in your local area and across the globe.

If you’re new to the app, let me give you the basics. First, go outside. Catch some of the fleeting winter sun, take in some fresh air, and observe your surroundings. Next, spot an interesting organism (plant, animal, bug, algae, etc.) and take a nice, full frame photo of it and upload it to the iNaturalist app. Congratulations! You are now an observer and this thing you have photographed is the first of your (many) observations.
Once you have a photo uploaded, it’s time to build a profile for your observation. Tell us what species you photographed, the date the photo was taken, and where it was located. Not sure what you took a photo of? Not a problem. If you take a peek at the screenshot below, you can see a handy dandy drop-down menu that shows up when you click on the species field and suggests, based on your photo, what species you might have photographed. As you can see, the top suggestion for my photo of dwarf fireweed was… dwarf fireweed! What! WITCHCRAFT (which is code for programming I am both impressed by and don’t understand).

iNaturalist – once you upload your photo you can use the drop down photo suggestion prompt to help identify what in fact you are looking at!

If the dark magic of the iNaturalist app suggested species list doesn’t give you a likely answer, someone else can. This is where the identifiers come into play. The iNaturalist community plays host to specialists and seasoned outdoors enthusiasts whose expertise can put a name to the mystery organisms in your photos.
But wait, it’s winter. The insects are dead or dreaming, the fish are under a sizeable roof of ice, and the foliage is exceptionally non-existent. This is all true but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of biodiversity discoveries you can make in the snowy months, far from it in fact. The bird populations in the Yukon change significantly from season to season; the water birds may be gone but the bohemian waxwings are lovely this time of year. We’re also experiencing a rare bird event this winter with the appearance of Steller’s jays. The Steller’s jay is the provincial bird of British Columbia and has only been noted en-masse in the territory twice before this: in 2006 and 1994. This showy blue-black corvid would make a charming addition to your list of iNaturalist observations.

A steller’s jay observed in Carcross, Yukon. Photo Credit Cameron Eckert iNaturalist

But wait, there’s more. Act now and you can take advantage of one of the finest animal observing methods gifted to you by winter: animal tracks. Sure, you can spot footprints in mud during the warmer months but the winter offers an endless white canvas for animal feet. Yes, you can also upload photos of animal footprints. Not only do you get to identify the beasties wandering through your neighbourhood but you also learn to identify them even when they aren’t there. That’s some Sherlock level business.

If you don’t feel like meandering outside (and as we move into the colder days, who could blame you), you can check out your local biodiversity from the comfort of your own home. Remember how you enter the location of your observations? That means all observations are placed in a map that lets you check which organisms have been observed in your area or in the destination of your choice.

All the observations in a given region can be seen from a map view. You can then click on each instance to learn more about the obeservation.

Not interested in your home range? No problem, check in on the gibbon observations in Asia, gaze upon the Macaw palm of South America. The iNaturalist map is a wonderful worldwide experience in biodiversity. You can peruse different species in far-ranging areas based on your interests. iNaturalist lets you check out the organisms based on category (frog, insect, flower, etc.), status (wild, threatened, introduced, needs ID, etc.), and date of observation. Mix it up, check it out, and find something new.

Explore iNaturalist through various categories including species, status, and date of observation. 

The iNaturalist app is an approachable means of connecting professionals and the public for the benefit of biodiversity research. The annual Bioblitzes are a great example of this. A Bioblitz is used to determine the health and diversity of an ecosystem by bringing together the local community of both specialists and the enthusiastic public to observe and record as many species as possible in a limited area within an equally limited timeframe to create a “snapshot” of the living things in a specific region. Outside of general curiosity, the data from a Bioblitz can inform decisions about wildlife management and future research.
The 2020 Yukon Bioblitz was held at our very own Yukon Wildlife Preserve in the short span of July 8-10 2020. Not to brag, but the Wildlife Preserve is a great local for a Bioblitz because it’s composed of a diverse array of habitats including forests, meadows, and wetlands which in turn host a variety of plant, animal, and fungi species. Unfortunately, the intentional residents of the Wildlife Preserve were not included in the Bioblitz observations. It would be very impressive to add a muskox or a lynx to your iNaturalist observation repertoire but if they’re full-time residents of the Wildlife Preserve, they’re not necessarily representative of the type or amount of these species that would be present in this area. Alas.

Over the three days of the 2020 Bioblitz, a horde of experts (like Dan Peach – mosquito man) and the public (including me) descended upon the Wildlife Preserve to document every and any species they came across. Even without the residents of the Wildlife Preserve, there were over 400 species recorded during the Bioblitz. That’s a lot! For a little perspective, this count includes:

The Count List
  • 2 species of algae
  • 1 amphibian
  • 22 species of beetle
  • 62 bird species
  • 12 species of moss
  • 1 centipede
  • 18 species of flies
  • 57 species of fungi and lichens
  • 11 species of true bugs
  • 31 species of bees, wasps, ants
  • 18 species of butterflies and moths
  • 8 mammal species
  • 7 species of snails
  • 11 species of dragonflies
  • 1 grasshopper
  • 1 pot worm
  • 8 spider species
  • 182 species of vascular plants
  • And a partridge in a pear tree
  • (Just kidding, partridges aren’t indigenous to the Yukon.)
  • (And neither are pear trees.)
For the full species list and the distribution map, check it out here!

The Bioblitz provides a snapshot of what’s present in the territory but there are 482,443 km² of territory to explore. Imagine what else you could find. Get out there, observe, record, and have a good time!

Video shot and edited by Jake Paleczny.

Joelle Ingram

Joelle Ingram

Human of Many Talents

Joelle is a former archaeologist, former wildlife interpreter, and a full-time random fact enthusiast. She received her master’s degree in anthropology from McMaster University. One of the four people who read her thesis gave it the glowing review “It’s a paper that would appeal to very specific group of people,” which is probably why only four people have read it. Her favourite land mammal is a muskox, her favourite aquatic mammal is a narwhal. She thinks it’s important that you know that.

867-456-7400
 info@yukonwildlife.ca

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1 Mosquito, 2 Mosquito . . .

1 Mosquito, 2 Mosquito . . .

1 Mosquito, 2 Mosquito . . .

This article was made possible thanks to support from the Environmental Awareness Fund. Engage and educate yourself in this 10-part blog series, about Yukon Biodiversity.

10 minute Read plus 3:47 minute video. Banner image photo credit: John Borden.

Mosquitoes: the blood-sucking embodiment of tinnitus. Let’s talk about them. If you are a Yukon resident, I’m sure you are painfully aware that our triangle shaped territory plays host to a truly astonishing number of these whining winged menaces. They rise from their slumber in early spring before the ice has even left the lakes to make all your outdoor activities a little bit more annoying. And itchy.

Photo Credit: Dan Peach

Mosquito evasion is a popular summer pastime here in the North so it might seem wild that people would actively seek out mosquitos but that’s the case for many entomologists who go out and willing get bitten by these bugs for science. Dr. Dan Peach from the University of British Columbia recently conducted a mosquito study in the Yukon which identified thirty odd different species of mosquitos including a few that have never been recorded in the territory before!

Dan Peach, a PhD candidate in SFU’s Department of Biological Sciences, feeds a mosquito. Photo Credit SFU News.

Researchers use the shape and relative size of a mosquito’s body parts to identify which type it is as well as scale patterns, colour, and hairs. Obviously, identifying these traits on an insect that could comfortably hang out on a dime isn’t easy. Mosquito identification usually requires a microscope, but experienced researchers can identify different species with the naked eye if the mosquito is holding still. It’s a weird party trick but you could get a lot of mileage out of it during a Yukon summer.

In his studies, Peach has had to be bitten by mosquitos more than 100,000 times. In the works for him is a peer-reviewed guide to Yukon mosquitos. This photo was taken during Yukon Wildlife Preserve-hosted Yukon Bioblitz in summer 2020. Photo Credit: Vince Federoff, Whitehorse Star

The Yukon actually has a long a long history of mosquito research; the first formal record of a mosquito collected in the territory was in 1904. That being said, mosquito surveys aren’t frequent. Before Dr. Peach’s survey, the last mosquito collecting spree was conducted in the early ‘70s. Now you may be asking yourself, “why oh why would anyone want to survey mosquitoes?”

Just like any survey related to biodiversity, it’s important for understanding and monitoring our local ecosystems and improving our understanding of our planet as a whole. Just because something is horrible and bitey doesn’t mean it isn’t ecologically significant and interesting. For example, you may or may not know that only female mosquitoes drink blood while males stick to a diet of plant nectar. That’s right, mosquitoes are pollinators just like bees, bats, butterflies, and… other creatures whose names may or may not start with B. Female mosquitoes also drink plant juice but they do need additional protein to produce eggs and that’s where the blood portion of their diet comes in.

A female Culex pipiens cleans tansy pollen from her proboscis. Photo Credit Mike Hrabar.

Because there is such a diverse array of mosquitoes in the Yukon, I’m not going to get into all of them here (if you want the complete list of every type of mosquito identified in the Yukon, check out Dr. Peach’s mosquito guide for all your mozzie needs coming soon). Instead, I’d like to offer you a sampler pack of what the Yukon mosquito community has to offer starting with my personal favourite, Culex territans. When you’re being eaten alive by clouds of biting bugs during the summer months, I can almost guarantee that none of them are C. territans. See, unlike many other species of mosquito, C. territans rarely if ever feed on warm blooded creatures and instead feed exclusively on amphibians. Amphibians, you know, like frogs. Frogs who are notorious for eating bugs. Bold move, C. territans!

Anopheles earlei is sometimes referred to as “Canada’s national mosquito” and it’s not because it smells of maple syrup and has strong opinions about hockey. During the winter, we are blessedly bug free as they all either die or go into hibernation. Canada’s national mosquito got its title due to its interesting hibernation habits: the females like to hibernate en masse inside beaver lodges! Another fun fact about A. earlei is that before the 2020 Bioblitz (a biodiversity survey conducted in a specific area for a limited amount of time. In this case, our very own Wildlife Preserve!), this particular mosquito hadn’t been reported in the Yukon since 1919, a whole entire century ago.

Footage from Dr. Dan’s visit during the 2020 Yukon Bioblitz conducted at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve. Video shot and edited by Jake Paleczny. 

Speaking of gaps in recording, let me introduce our third contestant: Aedes euedes. Up until 2019, A. euedes has never been recorded in the Yukon. This doesn’t mean they haven’t been here, but when there are multiple decades between surveys, some things might slip between the cracks. What else is lurking out there? Only future biodiversity surveys will tell!

While these three species are relatively rare, the most common mosquitoes in the Yukon belong to a group called “snowmelt mosquitoes” which sounds kind of pretty until you remember it’s referring to tiny airborne vampires. Like any species that survives and thrives in the North, snowmelt mosquitoes need to be pretty hearty. Instead of laying their eggs in lakes, ponds, or marshes, they use depressions in the ground that are temporarily filled with water during the early spring melt (hence the name). These pools formed by snow melted on sunny spring days will often freeze over at night, but snowmelt mosquitoes can survive in chilly water and fluctuating temperatures. Their chosen spawning puddles gives these bugs a bit of an advantage: they avoid getting eaten by critters that live in permanent bodies of water like fish or other bugs. Using puddles that thaw while bigger bodies of water are still frozen also gives them a leg up on the relatively brief snow-free seasons.

Researchers collect mosquitos in the dense forest of the Yukon. Photo Credit: Dan Peach

One of these snowmelt mosquitoes, Aedes communis, is often found in treed areas and it is a known vector (an agent that carries and transmits a disease) for snowshoe hare virus. While this is a bummer for snowshoe hares, it isn’t a problem for humans unless we get a huge dose of it and even then, it just presents as flu-like symptoms.

Culex tarsalis may be less common in the Yukon than A.communis, but as far as mosquitoes goes, it’s much more intimidating. Known as the “Western Encephalitis Mosquito” and “the mother of all vectors”, it’s a known vector for West Nile virus, several forms of encephalitis, and a long list of other diseases. For those not in the know, encephalitis is a swelling of the brain often caused by a viral infection and has symptoms ranging from aches and fatigue to hallucinations and seizures. It’s not great.

Close up of Culex tarsalis, a species of mosquito that Dr. Dan Peach was the first to confirm is found in Yukon. Photo Credit: Daniel Peach/Journal of the Entomological Society of British Columbia).

But fear not, citizen! While we have mosquitoes in the Yukon that could transmit diseases to people, they don’t and here’s why: In order for mosquito to give you a virus, it needs to be carrying that virus in the first place. Even if the mosquito was carrying a transmittable virus, the virus needs heat to multiply itself enough to the point where it would be too much for the human immune system to deal with. What do we not have in the Yukon? Heat. On the whole, the Yukon is just too chilly for mosquito-born disease to exist let alone thrive. I hope this gives you a feeling of relief as you bask in our -40 C winters.

You see, mosquitoes are diverse in their diets, behaviours, and characteristics, which just helps highlight the fact that the Yukon is wonderfully rich in biodiversity. This is something we should all appreciate even if it applies to insects that sometimes siphon your blood.

Joelle Ingram

Joelle Ingram

Human of Many Talents

Joelle is a former archaeologist, former wildlife interpreter, and a full-time random fact enthusiast. She received her master’s degree in anthropology from McMaster University. One of the four people who read her thesis gave it the glowing review “It’s a paper that would appeal to very specific group of people,” which is probably why only four people have read it. Her favourite land mammal is a muskox, her favourite aquatic mammal is a narwhal. She thinks it’s important that you know that.

867-456-7400
 info@yukonwildlife.ca

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