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Reindeer Trouble

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 steep drop? One reason is human activity. Reindeer and caribou are similar members of the same species of deer. They live in the far northern regions of the world. Logging, mining, and the building of oil and gas pipelines in these areas have caused loss of habitat, or the animals’ natural environment.

Global climate change, however, has had an even bigger impact. Reindeer and caribou live in some of the world’s chilliest climates. The warming of the Earth is severely affecting their feeding habits in the spring, summer, and winter.

Spring

Reindeer and caribou are fighting for survival in some places because warm springlike temperatures occur earlier. They migrate, or move seasonally. In the spring, they travel north 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 arrive too late to feed on many of the young plants.

Summer

Warmer summers are also a problem. As temperatures rise, so do numbers of insects. More insects mean the reindeer and caribou spend more time shaking off mosquitoes and flies. They do not spend enough time eating. If the animals don’t gain a lot of weight in the summer, they may not be able to survive the winter.

Winter

In the past, very cold temperatures helped bring lots of snow where reindeer and caribou roam. Today, freezing rain is more common. Freezing rain covers the animals’ food with ice. The winter diet of reindeer and caribou 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 the decline of reindeer and caribou. “But caribou are found only in North America, and reindeer are found only in Scandinavia and Siberia.”

Reindeer are also slightly smaller than caribou. Unlike caribou, some reindeer have been domesticated, or trained to live closely with humans, like cattle. Today, people living in the Arctic regions of Scandinavia and Siberia herd reindeer. 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.

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