Daily tours at the Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station (LARS) at University of Alaska Fairbanks provide visitors with the chance to view muskoxen and reindeer while learning about ongoing research studying the adaptations enabling these arctic animals to survive and thrive in extremely cold temperatures.
A tour guide meets visitors at the gift shop (purchase tickets inside) at the entrance to the grounds on Yankovich Road for a brief introduction to LARS. The facility was founded in 1976 on 134 acres left to the university by the Yankovich family. Half the land is maintained as pasture and the other half is left to boreal forest, providing a pleasant mixed habitat for the animals.
A short walk brings guests to the muskoxen, as the guide strings willow branches through the fence to tempt the animals near. LARS has 25 muskoxen at the facility with new babies born each year. Muskoxen were once extinct from Alaska, and the 4,300 individuals that currently reside here were all born to a small herd that was transplanted from Greenland by the territorial government to repopulate the state. It’s quite a success story, and your guide will describe it in more depth.
The muskox is the only large mammal to live year-round in the arctic without migrating like caribou or hibernating like bears. This requires muskoxen to be particularly well-insulated and grow a thick layer of fur underneath their guard hair. This layer is called qiviut, and is a highly prized fiber for its ability to wick away the elements and stay warm. You’ll get the chance to feel the softness of qiviut on the tour.
Reindeer are in a corral next to the muskoxen. Your guide will talk you through the differences between reindeer and caribou - two subspecies often mistaken for the same animal. Reindeer have a barrel body and stout build from their domestication as working animals in Scandinavia. Caribou, never domesticated, have long and lean limbs. Your guide might also mention an obvious contrast in personality, as reindeer tend to be docile and caribou are skittish around humans.
Listen for a clicking noise as the rangifer approaches the fence. This odd sound is made by a tendon in each foot that pulls a caribou’s hooves forward with a snap, to conserve the energy needed to flex muscles that humans and other mammals use to walk. The energy savings of this tendon help give the animal a greater “mile per gallon” ratio of food intake to miles walked, making them the most efficient walkers ever identified.
The huge antlers that grow on the heads of the males certainly don’t add to these efficiencies, but are necessary for defense from predators and in mating rituals. Your guide will let you hold an antler so that you can ponder how difficult it would be to carry two atop your head.
Tours last approximately 45 minutes. If it’s raining, guests may borrow an umbrella from the gift shop, where you can also pick up LARS apparel, stuffed muskoxen, Alaskan artwork, and children’s books. Tours are handicap accessible and special arrangements can be made for groups. Picnic tables and port-a-potties are on site and open to the public.
Parking is limited, so consider taking the campus shuttle to LARS from the UAF Wood Center, departing twenty minutes prior to each tour.
If you visit LARS outside of tour hours, you may still be able to view muskoxen and caribou from the parking lot. Follow the signs from the parking lot to the Animal Viewing Area for access to a nearby pasture.