Muskox Wooly undercoat: Unexpected tool for health monitoring and conservation

29 April 2018 - By: Kim Birnie-Gauvin


Qiviut cortisol in muskoxen as a potential tool for informing conservation strategies

Di Francesco, J., Navarro-Gonzalez, N., Wynne-Edwards, K., Peacock, S., Leclerc, L.M., Tomaselli, M., Davison, T., Carlsson, A. and Kutz, S. (2017). Conservation Physiology, 5(1), cox052.

Climate change leads to more than an increase in ambient temperature. For example, it increases the occurrence of extreme heat events and disease spreading. These consequences are especially true, and perhaps more severe, for populations of animals with low genetic variability or those adapted to cold climates. These populations are increasingly exposed to multiple stressors and at risk of extinction. Muskoxen (Ovibos moschatus) are large herbivores adapted for life in the cold Arctic, whose populations in the Canadian North have been declining. These declines have considerable consequences for local aboriginal communities, who rely on these animals as a source of nutrition and an important cultural element. While the underlying causes for their decline remains largely unknown, ecological alterations and disease emergence linked to climate change are thought to be at play. This may occur through changes in cortisol levels, which, in the short-term, have an adaptive coping value, but in the long-term have detrimental effects. An exciting new method has been developed recently, where cortisol levels from the previous weeks to months were determined from the wooly undercoat (also known as qiviut) of 150 wild muskox. The findings revealed high variability among individuals, with males having higher cortisol levels than females, perhaps reflecting social dominance hierarchies. Additionally, summer levels were lower than fall and winter levels, perhaps because of the breeding season, or due to stress related to various seasonal factors. Samples obtained in more recent years showed greater levels of cortisol, indicating an increase in stress within the population. While the exact mechanism behind these patterns is not fully understood, this approach may offer a valuable conservation tool to obtain information about the health status of a population at risk. 

Kim Birnie-Gauvin, National Institute of Aquatic Resources, Denmark.
Category: Conservation Physiology
Kim Birnie-Gauvin

Kim Birnie-Gauvin

Kim is currently a PhD Candidate at the Technical University of Denmark, in the Section for Freshwater Fisheries and Ecology, where she studies the physiological basis of migration success and timing in diadromous fish species. She also belongs to the AMBER project (Adaptive Management of Barriers in European Rivers), where she investigates the effects of barriers and mitigation methods on fish density, movement and populations. She maintains broad interests in everything aquatic, but the underlying physiological mechanisms of ecological phenomena remain her “favorite” field of research.