Winter is coming to Dovrefjell. The high peaks are already covered in snow, and the plants of the lowlands have changed to turn gold and red for autumn. On this landscape the musk ox (Ovibos moschatus) is also preparing for winter.
For me the musk ox has always been a mythical sort of animal, a reclusive inhabitant of far-flung northern lands. On this fieldwork trip to Norway I have finally had a chance to see them. They are shaggy brown creatures, difficult to spot at a distance in the heaths and meadows of these glacially-carved mountains. Up close they look like they are wearing a rug, because their long hair sways around their legs as they walk. I can’t imagine what it is like for them in the depths of the snowy winter, but they are still engaged in the important business of eating the season’s plants and lichens.
The musk ox has not been in Norway for more than a century. It was re-introduced from a Greenland population in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but perhaps deserves to call this area its home. The species once had a far wider range, reaching in the Pleistocene as far south as New Mexico. Since that time its range had dramatically contracted until this active human intervention. So why has the musk ox disappeared?
Two major hypotheses are climate change (we are no longer in an ice age) and human over-hunting (I have had it in sausage form, and can report it tastes very nice). Anyway, the discussion is very controversial, but a recent paper by Lorenzen et al. has suggested that climate change is a sufficient explanation for the disappearance of this species. There are many areas in today’s world where the animal might be able to live, but which it has not yet re-colonized – one justification for the last century’s reintroduction. Certainly these landscapes feel cold enough to me – while the ice age is long over, there are still glaciers and ice nearby.
The existence of this animal here challenges me to think about the shadow of the past, and the roles of climate change and human action in shaping these landscapes. We live in the shadow of a very different earlier world.