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Minerals in the ground affect reproductive success in muskoxen

Imagine a world without pharmacies, where expecting mothers have to find the nutrients they need scattered across the landscape. This is the reality for wild animals like muskoxen, which rely on knowledge of their environment to find the essential minerals crucial for healthy pregnancies. 

A recent study by researchers at Aarhus University reveals how these iconic creatures utilize the chemical makeup of the Arctic to thrive.

Muskoxen and their significance 

Muskoxen, with their thick fur and impressive horns, are well-known residents of the harsh Arctic environment. They’ve been around for thousands of years and are perfectly suited to the extreme cold. 

These animals play two important roles in the Arctic. First, they consume plants, which helps control the types of plants that grow there and creates habitats for other animals. Moreover, they are important to the cultures of Indigenous people in the Arctic, who use them for food, clothing, and other purposes. 

Unfortunately, muskoxen face several challenges. Climate change is making it harder for them to find food and water. To help muskoxen survive, scientists are studying how things like the minerals in the soil affect their ability to reproduce. This information can be used to create better strategies for protecting these iconic animals.

Trace elements in the Arctic

The researchers measured the levels of different elements, both helpful and harmful, in the plants that muskoxen eat. They then compared this information to how well muskoxen reproduced in various areas. This allowed the experts to identify which elements had the biggest impact. 

“Usually researchers look at the quality of the plants that the animals forage on. They measure major components of the plants such as nitrogen. But we dig a little deeper,” explained senior researcher Floris M. van Beest from the Aarhus Department of Ecoscience.

“We look at trace elements such as copper and selenium in the plants, but also if they are present in the ground beneath the plants.”

Essential elements for muskoxen

The results showed that certain elements found in plants are essential for healthy muskoxen populations in the Arctic. These elements, like nitrogen, copper, selenium, and molybdenum, play important roles in the animals’ bodies. 


Nitrogen is needed to build proteins, which are used for muscle development, hormone production, and fighting off disease. If there isn’t enough nitrogen in the plants muskoxen eat, they won’t be able to grow and reproduce healthily.

Copper and muskoxen

Copper helps muskoxen produce energy, use iron, and protect their cells from damage. If muskoxen don’t get enough copper, they may have problems reproducing, growing, and fighting off illness.


Selenium protects muskoxen cells from damage and helps their thyroid glands work properly, which is important for growth and reproduction.


Molybdenum helps muskoxen use nitrogen and build certain important molecules. While it’s not usually a problem, having the right amount of molybdenum in the environment ensures muskoxen have access to the nutrients they need.

Muskoxen and non-essential elements

The researchers also examined the potential harm caused by non-essential elements like arsenic and lead. These elements, although naturally occurring, can also be released into the environment by human activities like mining and industry. 

While not crucial for life, non-essential elements can be poisonous in high amounts. For muskoxen, exposure to high levels of these elements in their environment can lead to various health problems, including difficulty reproducing, slower growth, and fewer calves surviving.

“In some areas we found arsenic and lead and we know that it can reduce the reproductive success of the muskoxen. However, we did not find a causal effect here. Normally it would cause the reproductive organs to collapse, but there are still muskoxen present, so somehow they found a way to survive,” said Beest.

Reduced access to food

It is important to note that the measured levels were unlikely to directly harm the muskoxen’s reproductive organs. Instead, the observed effects may be caused by other factors, such as limited access to food due to heavy snow.

During winter, deep snow can make it harder for muskoxen to find food, forcing them to search in areas with less desirable food sources, which might have higher concentrations of arsenic and lead. 

This increased exposure to these contaminants can harm the health and reproduction of muskoxen, leading to fewer calves being born and surviving.

Variation of muskoxen over time

The experts found that muskoxen don’t use the same areas every year, and their choices seem to depend on what’s available and what the environment is like that year. 

Additionally, muskoxen don’t seem to use all the available nutrients equally, suggesting they have preferences or needs for specific ones. 

The findings suggest that understanding how muskoxen choose their habitat is more complex than just looking at where nutrients are. Factors such as snow cover, plants, and competition with other animals likely also play a role.

Broader implications for muskoxen

The research shows how the environment’s chemical makeup can affect the health of wild animal populations. It reminds us that keeping these environments healthy requires considering both living things and the chemicals present.

The study also suggests that climate change might affect the balance of chemicals in the environment, which could harm wildlife. Understanding this connection is important for predicting and reducing the negative effects of climate change on various animal species.

Policies and land management practices should consider the chemicals present in animal habitats. Protecting areas with essential nutrients and limiting exposure to harmful ones could be crucial for protecting wildlife.

Future research directions

This research paves the way for more studies on how the chemical makeup of environments, or “geochemical landscapes,” might affect the health of various wild animals. 

The findings suggest that this could be important not just for the specific species studied, but also for many different animals living in different types of environments.

“Not every animal needs the same amount of elements. But you can use the approach in other areas,” said Dr. Beest. “Now we know a little more about how these elements are spread through the ecosystem and how they affect the animals. Next step would be to use the same approach to map out other areas in Europe.”

The research is published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.


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