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Two reindeer in snow, in Finland Reindeer like these, in Finland, live in the far northern regions of Europe and Asia. (Photo: Marcello Bertinetti/Photo Researchers, Inc.)

Reindeer Trouble

You may know about Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, but did you know their reindeer relatives are having difficulty surviving?

By Laura Linn | null null , null
Map: Jim McMahon (Source: University of Alberta)
Map: Jim McMahon (Source: University of Alberta)

In a season when the thoughts of many turn to flying reindeer, reindeer of the nonflying variety are in trouble.

A recent study from the University of Alberta in Canada shows that the number of reindeer and caribou has dropped by almost 60 percent over the past 30 years.

Why this dramatic decline? One reason is human activity that has caused loss of habitat, or the animals’ natural environment. Reindeer and caribou, which are similar members of the same species of deer, live in the extreme northern regions of the world. Logging, mining, road building, and the construction of oil and gas pipelines have driven herds of caribou and reindeer out of some areas in Canada and Siberia.

Global climate change, however, has had the biggest impact on the survival of these animals that thrive in some of the world’s chilliest climates. The warming of the Earth is severely affecting the feeding habits of reindeer and caribou in the spring, summer, and winter.

Spring

Reindeer and caribou are fighting for survival in many parts of the world because warm springlike temperatures are occurring earlier. Reindeer and caribou migrate, or move seasonally, from one region to another. They move north in the spring and eat spring plants. But spring plants are popping out of the ground sooner than in the past. This means that the mothers and their calves are missing the opportunity to feed on many of the young plants because they arrive too late.

Summer

Warmer summers are also a problem. As temperatures rise, so does insect activity. With more insects harassing them, the reindeer and caribou spend too much time shaking off mosquitoes and flies and not enough time eating. If the animals don’t gain a lot of weight over the summer months, they risk not being able to survive the winter, or giving birth to unhealthy calves in the spring.

Winter

In the past, temperatures were usually very cold in the regions where reindeer and caribou roam, so it usually snowed. Today, freezing rain is much more common. This is a problem because freezing rain covers the animals’ food with ice. Their winter diet is lichen, a fungus that grows mostly on the ground. If ice covers the lichen, the animals cannot dig through it with their hooves. They can starve if they cannot find other sources of food.

Reindeer vs. Caribou

So what’s the difference between a reindeer and a caribou? Not much. The main distinction is where they live. Because they belong to the same species, “they are very similar in behavior and appearance,” explained Liv Vors, one of the authors of the study on reindeer and caribou decline. “But caribou are found only in North America, and reindeer are found only in Scandinavia and Siberia.”

Reindeer are also slightly smaller than caribou and unlike caribou, some reindeer have been domesticated, or trained to live closely with humans, like cattle. Today, reindeer are herded by many people living in the Arctic regions of Scandinavia and Siberia. These communities depend on reindeer for almost everything. They eat reindeer meat and use reindeer skins for clothing and shelter. Some people also saddle and ride reindeer or keep them as pets.

Reindeer and Caribou Facts

Because reindeer and caribou are the same species, they have more similarities than differences:

  • Both males and females grow antlers.
  • Both migrate great distances twice a year, south in the fall and north in the spring.
  • Both have unique hairs that trap air, giving them very good insulation against the cold Arctic temperatures. These hairs also help them float in the water.
  • Both are strong swimmers and can even move through the ice of the Arctic Ocean.
  • Both have large hooves that help them walk through deep snow.
  • Both give birth in the spring, usually to a single calf, which can start walking within 90 minutes of being born.
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