Muskox Mystery: The rewards of persistence

A juvenile bull muskox stands on top of a pile of dirt at the Large Animal Research Station at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. April 27, 2011. Photo by Heather Bryant.

Last winter, 12 muskoxen at the University of Alaska Fairbanks died. I broke the story in November for The Sun Star while researching university animal care.

My story keyed in other local media outlets, who went silent soon afterward. The deaths were probably due to malnutrition, nothing further to report.

A pregnant muskox in the spring of 2011. April 27, 2011. Photo by Heather Bryant.

Something seemed off to me, though. Muskoxen are amazing beasts. They can withstand the harshest conditions of the far north. It’s hard to remember that there’s a breaking point, even for muskoxen. This research herd helped scientists understand these animals’ needs. Muskoxen are steadfast and resourceful, but when research tries to define what makes them tick, they seem extremely fragile. After that first story, I couldn’t understand how these animals died despite the university knowing their fragility. Everyone I talked to appeared to care deeply for the animals.

The puzzle stuck with me for nearly a year. I gathered information, continued conducting interviews and wrote a couple followup stories. One of my coworkers reported on the births of four healthy baby muskoxen (after a year where no calves survived). The university announced its intentions to overhaul the animal care system. The herd began to recover.

Two weeks ago, an animal rights group lambasted the university about the conditions that led to the muskoxen deaths. I scrambled to pull together all my notes. A new USDA report clarified which aspects of the animal care system created a poor environment for the herd. With this new information, and a reason to talk to my sources about what had been on my mind, my notes finally began to make sense.

The Sun Star published my investigative report online last week. I had enough information for a time line, I’d kept all the documents, and we had plenty of photos after going back to the research station again and again.

Before I send you off to read the culmination of the muskox mystery, I’ll let you know why I’m bringing this up. This blog isn’t about reporting, it’s about science — but sometimes the two go hand-in-hand. Sometimes, there will be something that interests you with maddeningly little information. It might be out of the public eye, and you have no idea if it will fade away, forgotten, before the world notices it in the same way you noticed it.

Don’t let this get you down. Keep gathering information. Even if the information is small, and nothing worth bragging about at a party, keep digging. When just the right piece of new technology, that new finding, or some other catalyst causes everything to fall into place, you’ll be ready. You might be more ready than anyone else out there. The best way you can honor your interests is to use your passion to be well-informed.

For more on the muskox mayhem, and the people behind the story, read the Sun Star extended coverage, “Havoc in the Herd”

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