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Going To Extremes

Going To Extremes

Joel Berger dresses up as a bear to get closer to muskoxen.
By Katharine Sandiford
Jul 15
2019
From the JULY/AUGUST 2019 Issue

Scores of academics and scientists descend on the territories each year to poke, probe, and proselytise. It’s not all the stuff of dry dissertations. Some of it is weird. All of it is wonderful. This issue, Up Here is documenting some of the wildest research happening in the North. 

Joel Berger’s work is out there. Way out there. Unlike most researchers who observe their subjects placidly behind well-secured cover, Joel dresses up as a top predator and mingles with the herd. That’s right, he commonly approaches an entire group of muskoxen, walking on all fours, dressed up in a goofy-looking polar bear suit.

“The public gives me a hard time dressing like an animal but the scientists get it. It’s like, what is in the mind of these animals and are they going to be able to adapt,” he says in a video he posted online. “I know it looks like fun, but when you have one of these animals charging at you with these nice little hooked horns, it’s not as much fun as you might think it is.”

For over four decades, this renowned conservation biologist has gone to the farthest reaches of the world—both high lattitudes and high elevations—to study the species that have adapted to some of the coldest, most desolate places. A senior scientist with the World Conservation Society, and chair of wildlife conservation at Colorado State University, Berger is rarely found indoors. He schleps dry-bags of camping gear and research equipment around the globe dropping down in Alaska, the Russian Arctic, the high Andes, the Himalayas, Mongolia, and the Tibetan Plateau to get up-close and personal with his beloved muskoxen, wild yaks, saga, and huemul, to name a few.

He’ll spend months of every year snowmachining around the Western Arctic to follow—and camp alongside—herds of long-haired muskoxen, his favourite species to study. “If polar bears are the face of climate change, muskoxen are the heart,” he writes in his most-recent book, Extreme Conservation: Life at the Edges of the World.

“Are ambient changes at the poles and elsewhere occurring faster than species’ capacities to evolve? Can species persist in the advent of radical climate change? What, if any, conservation tactics can effectively be applied?” These questions motivate him to go to such great lengths—and bolts of faux-fur fabric—to understand this little-studied, highly adapted relic of the Pleistocene.

And if a muskox does attempt to charge him, he’ll simply pop off his bear hood to reveal his human head, startling and stopping the stomping animal in its tracks.

A chance encounter with a prowling polar bear may not prove as easy, but he quips in his book, “At least mating season is not until June.”