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Best Job Ever: Collecting Bones in Alaska

Imagine if you could go out walking and easily pick up something that hasn’t been touched for hundreds, or even thousands, of years. Conservation paleobiologist and National Geographic grantee Dr. Joshua Miller does bone surveys on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska to study why critical habitats for caribou and other species have changed over time. Miller says, “Anytime we do a survey, we’re finding scores and scores of bones.”

“As we walk across the tundra looking for bones,” Miller says, “most of what we’re looking for are the shed antlers of female caribou. If we come across the leg bone of a wolf or the jaw bone of a rodent, we’re just as excited because each of those bones gives us really interesting historical insight into what that ecosystem up in the Arctic Refuge was like decades to centuries to even millennia ago.” The bones reveal which regions of the refuge are used by caribou and other animals, including where they give birth to their young.

The inflatable raft is how Joshua Miller moves through ANWR to do bone surveys.
The inflatable raft is how Joshua Miller moves through ANWR to do bone surveys.

Every summer, Miller is dropped off in the Brooks Range with ungulate biologist Dr. Eric Wald. They navigate through the refuge in an inflatable raft, sampling as they go, until they reach the Arctic Ocean. Miller explains that the inflatable raft is important because it is how they bring in food, transport samples, and, of course, get to where they will be picked up at the end of the field season. “It is a real collaborative endeavor between myself, biologists and scientists, scientific staff at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Arctic Refuge, and the logistical crew, including the pilot.”

A bug suit is another essential. “One of the biggest challenges of working in the Arctic Refuge for me has been the mosquito population. These guys are thick. Our bug suits are really what keep us sane. Mosquitoes can be so bad that you can’t spend more than a couple minutes outside of a tent without swallowing half a dozen or getting bit 300 or 400 times. It can be really, really epic.”

Despite the challenging environment, Miller is as enthusiastic as ever. It turns out, bones are not hard to find in a natural ecosystem. He calls it “bone rich.” Miller and Wald find wolves, birds, rodent remains, “Everywhere we walk … we’re going to find something that’s interesting. It’s just a matter of getting there, putting our heads down and looking.” The bone surveys allow them to look at species interaction. “We have caribou gnawing on caribou antlers. We have rodents gnawing on bones. We have carnivores like wolves and bears gnawing on bones.”

Joshua Miller and Eric Wald find lots of animal bones and shed antlers lying on the landscape.
Joshua Miller and Eric Wald find lots of animal bones and shed antlers lying on the landscape.

Miller and Wald have even found evidence of human interaction, such as caribou antlers that have been hacked off by humans. “Some of [the samples] probably represent some of the earliest interactions between humans and caribou once humans up there got steel.” They’ve come across all sorts of historical treasures, including mammoth bones and beautiful hand axes chipped by humans likely thousands of years ago. Miller says, “There are some incredible artifacts just lying there on the landscape, waiting to be discovered.”

Find out more about Nat Geo’s Research and Exploration grants and check out the rest of the Best Job Ever web series to see more from explorers and grantees here.