Thursday, October 20, 2016

SNRE profile: Jan Rowell studies muskoxen and reindeer

Jan Rowell
When she was 18 or 19, Jan Rowell read an article about a muskox farm in Alaska that caught her interest. She was working as an animal science technician in Nova Scotia.

“It really fascinated me,” she said. “I knew I wanted to work with animals. I wanted to do something cool and I wanted to get out of Nova Scotia.”

She earned a degree in zoology in Victoria, B.C., and then studied the reproductive anatomy of female muskox for her master’s degree at the University of Ottawa. She continued her studies of the reproductive biology of muskoxen as she earned a doctorate at the University of Saskatchewan.

While she was in Saskatchewan, as part of her Ph.D., Rowell organized the capture and transport of 13 muskox calves to the University of Saskatchewan. She wanted a captive herd to facilitate research on the species. Rowell was struck by their docile nature and, as a knitter, the fineness of their wool, qiviut. When they reached 18 months of age, she began studying the endocrine patterns of their estrous cycle and pregnancy for her doctorate.

Rowell had a special opportunity to study muskoxen after finishing her undergraduate program. The National Museum of Natural Sciences in Ottawa hired her to collect information the behavior of muskox in their natural habitat in the high Arctic. She studied muskox, which were then considered a threatened species, for two five-month field seasons and recorded everything she saw. She worked with an international community of scientists at the museum field camp in Polar Bear Pass on Bathurst Island, a pretty rare and unique experience.

“What a fabulous job,” she said.
Freya, who was orphaned in the wild, is shown at the Large Animal
Research Station in 2013.

She and her husband, Dr. John Blake, moved to Alaska in 1988 after he became the University of Alaska Fairbanks veterinarian, and she happily continued her studies of muskoxen and reindeer with the Large Animal Research Station and, in 2009, as a research associate and later a research assistant professor with SNRE. She and SNRE Research Director Milan Shipka share an interest in ruminant reproductive physiology and endocrinology.

Since then, they have collaborated on numerous studies. They have studied many aspects of muskox and reindeer husbandry and reproduction but are currently studying the effectiveness of a synthetic progestin (DepoProvera) used by reindeer farmers Outside to subdue the normally aggressive male reindeer during rut, when the animals become dangerous to handle and can lose a lot weight. Rowell and Shipka are also studying the impact of the medication on fertility and sperm production. They expect to publish a paper soon on these results.

Another interest for Rowell is qiviut production. She and the education and outreach coordinator of the Large Animal Research Station received a USDA Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program grant to enhance communications between fiber producers and users and to develop marketing tools for them to use. A second part of the grant covered qiviut research.

The work is exciting for her, since interest in Alaska fiber production is growing. The only two fiber mills in Alaska are in the Interior, including one that specializes in qiviut. The grant helped promote the Alaska Natural Fiber Business Association and supported fiber festivals in Mat-Su, Kenai and, on Oct. 15, in Fairbanks. As part of her work, Rowell is studying how nutrition affects the quality of qiviut and is developing sorting standards to improve the quality of qiviut yarn.

Rowell worked with the university to develop a YouTube video on qiviut combing, which shows how to harvest qiviut from muskox. Officially, her work on qiviut is through the office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and her animal reproduction studies are through SNRE.

Rowell is glad to be at UAF, which hosts the world’s only muskox research herd. There are 24 animals. While her focus is research, she also teaches. This coming spring, she will teach a class on theriogenology, the study of applied reproductive science, to veterinary students. Her hobbies include spinning and knitting, and she is the secretary of the Alaska Natural Fiber Business Association.

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