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This scientist in Colorado dresses like animals, so he can study animals

Joel Berger is like a secret agent, and he never forgets his disguise.
Via Joel Berger

Planning the next mission is always a little tedious for Joel Berger. Before the adventure, comes the packing.

“I’ll bring a couple of GPS units,” Berger said, going through the pile of gear inside his Fort Collins home. “Lots of different kind of batteries for my GoPro, for my different Nikon cameras."

You could call Joel a spy of sorts. He travels to remote destinations, carries plenty of gadgets and never forgets his disguise.

"Here's part of our polar bear,” Berger said, placing a fake polar bear head over his own. “We have an entire uniform that comes with the polar bear.”

For the past ten years, Berger’s gone undercover in the arctic to study herds of musk oxen.

“It's this animal that's got massive fur – hair that droops down, almost to the ground,” Berger described. “They live in these herds and they're cold adapted and live only in the arctic."

Berger is a professor at Colorado State University and scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York.

“I want to know how animals think, how animals act, how animals survive,” Berger said.

Berger’s traveled to Alaska, Greenland and the remote Wrangel Island, north of the Russian mainland to study musk oxen in the wild.

“We’ve been close,” Berger said. “My colleagues and I have been very close.”

In Alaska, Berger will dress up as a grizzly bear. On Wrangel Island, he’ll don his polar bear suit.

“We want to know how muskox are going to respond to this,” Berger said, pointing to the polar bear head.

Berger even brings along a fake caribou head.

“When I’m playing caribou, the animals don’t worry about me,” he said. “They’re not happy about polar bears. They’re not happy about grizzly bears.”

Just last week, Berger and his colleagues published a study on musk oxen based on seven years’ worth of observations and data collection.

“We’re trying to understand how animals grow and the factors that influence it,” Berger said.

Berger’s research looks at how a changing arctic climate is changing the musk ox.

“With more rain on snow events, we have more periods in which mothers can’t access their food,” Berger explained. “It’s essentially like having a salad that becomes ice-coated. Pregnant mothers can’t penetrate the ice, don’t have access to the food, their babies suffer and it has long-term consequences because the babies then never grow to the size that they should.”

Next month, Berger is making another trip to Wrangel Island and will work alongside Russian scientists. You can bet he’ll bring along his disguises.

"How else do we learn how animals are going to react unless we're looking through their eyes?" Berger said.

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