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Reindeer Trouble

At this time of year, some people find themselves thinking about flying reindeer. But some scientists are thinking about reindeer of the nonflying variety, because the animals are in trouble.

A recent scientific study shows that the number of reindeer and caribou has dropped steeply. Scientists from the University of Alberta in Canada did the study. They found that the number has gone down by almost 60 percent over the past 30 years.

Why this big change? One reason is human activity. Reindeer and caribou are members of the same species, or type, of deer. They live in the far northern lands of the world. Logging and mining in these areas have caused loss of habitat, or the animals’ natural home in the wild.

Global climate change is also to blame. Reindeer and caribou live in some of the world’s chilliest climates. The warming of the Earth is having a big impact on their feeding habits.

Warmer temperatures, less food

Reindeer and caribou are fighting for survival as warm springlike temperatures arrive earlier. These animals 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.

In the past, very cold temperatures meant lots of snow in the places where reindeer and caribou roam. Today, freezing rain is more common. Freezing rain covers the animals’ food with ice. The animals cannot dig through the ice with their hooves. They can starve if they cannot find other food.

Reindeer or Caribou?

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

Reindeer are also slightly smaller than caribou. Unlike caribou, some reindeer have been trained to live closely with humans, like cattle. Some people in Scandinavia and Siberia herd reindeer. These communities depend on reindeer for almost everything. They eat reindeer meat. They use reindeer skins for clothing. They may also saddle and ride reindeer or keep them as pets.

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