Svalbard Reindeer in Norway: Facts and Potential Problems
An Iconic Species
Reindeer are an iconic species. They are beloved by many children for taking Santa around the world on Christmas Eve. After all, without his trusty reindeer pulling his sleigh, Santa couldn't deliver his presents. Unfortunately, some real-life reindeer are showing signs of a potential problem at the moment. The size of the animals is decreasing.
The animals in question are found on an archipelago known as Svalbard, which is part of Norway. Researchers have studied the Svalbard reindeer since 1994. During that time, both the summer and winter temperatures in the area have increased. At the same time, the weight of the reindeer has gradually decreased. The consequences of this weight loss are unknown at the moment, but they could be serious.
Reindeer and North American caribou are closely related. In fact, they have the same scientific name —Rangifer tarandus. They belong to different subspecies, however.
The Archipelago of Svalbard
People may be familiar with Svalbard for its role in Northern Lights, a fantasy book for young adults written by Philip Pullman. In North America the book is known as The Golden Compass. The tale is set in a parallel universe. It tells the story of a girl named Lyra, who lives in Oxford in England. As part of her heroic exploits, she travels to Svalbard to find her kidnapped uncle, who she eventually discovers is really her father.
In our universe, the Svalbard archipelago is located in the Arctic Ocean. The islands are known for their expanses of untouched nature. The administrative centre of the islands is located in the town of Longyearbyen. The town is located on the largest island of the archipelago, which is named Spitsbergen.
Svalbard doesn't have as cold a climate as might be expected at its latitude. In Longyearbyen, the average winter temperature is said to be -14°C and the average summer temperature is said to be 6°C. It should be noted that these values may not be accurate today, however. The average temperature on the islands is increasing, as described below.
A Svalbard Reindeer Feeding at Longyearbyen
There are some features that all reindeer share, regardless of their subspecies. They belong to the deer family, as their name suggests.
- Reindeer are the only deer in which both males and females bear antlers. Some of the females in a particular population may not develop antlers, however.
- The animals are found in Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, northern Europe, and northern Asia.
- They live on the tundra or in woodland, depending on the subspecies.
- Reindeer are herbivores.
- They are the only mammals that can see ultraviolet light (as far as we know). This ability allows them to see things that to us are often camouflaged by the blinding white snow. These items include lichens (an important winter food), urine from potential predators or competitors, and the white fur of wolves, which sometimes attack reindeer.
- Their hooves are well adapted for the changing consistency of the ground. The pads on the bottom of the hooves change their features in summer and in winter in order to provide the best traction.
- Some reindeer migrate in the spring. The animals sometimes travel in huge herds over long distances and are good swimmers. Svalbard reindeer are quite sedentary, however.
Santa Claus and Female Svalbard Reindeer
The female Svalbard reindeer is an excellent candidate for the identity of Santa's helpers. Clement Clarke Moore is said to have been the first person to link reindeer with Santa Claus. His classic poem entitled "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" was published in 1844. In the poem, he says that Santa's sleigh is pulled by eight tiny reindeer. The only reindeer that could be called tiny in comparison to the other kinds is the Svalbard one. Although both genders of the subspecies are small, the females are significantly smaller than the males.
Male Svalbard reindeer begin the development of their antlers in April and drop them in November or occasionally in early December before Christmas arrives. Females form their new antlers in June and generally keep them until the next June. Therefore it's highly likely that Santa's reindeer are female, since all of the animals pulling his sleigh bear antlers.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.— Clement Clarke Moore
A Curious and Shedding Animal
More Facts About the Animals
- The Svalbard reindeer is the smallest subspecies of reindeer and has the scientific name Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus.
- The reindeer often look stocky—and sometimes fat—and have short legs. The fat appearance is sometimes due to the presence of thick fur instead of excess body fat, although the animals do put on weight before the winter season.
- The head is smaller in proportion to the body than in other reindeer and is also more rounded.
- In summer, the fur is generally brown on the back and grey on the rest of the body.
- In winter, the entire body often appears grey or even white.
- According to the Norwegian Polar Institute, females have an average weight of about 53 kg in spring and 70 kg in the autumn.
- Males are bigger than females and have an average weight of around 65 kg in the spring and 90 kg in the autumn.
- In summer, the animals spend their time in small groups of three to five animals.
- In October, the reindeer gather in larger groups for mating. A single male chooses around ten females for his harem.
- Large groups of animals may also gather on a good feeding ground in winter.
- The female generally gives birth to a single calf in June.
- Most animals live for about ten years. One individual is known to have reached seventeen years of age, however.
Increasing Temperature in Svalbard
On November 25th, 2016, Ketil Isaksen from the Norwegian Meteorological Institute made a significant announcement. He said that for the first time in recorded history, the average temperature for the year in Svalbard was poised to be around 0°C. Historically, the usual temperature has been around -6.7°C. Isaksen also said that each of the past 73 months had been warmer than average. According to him, "Svalbard is a very good spot to show what's happening in the Arctic at the moment".
In March 2018, Kim Holmen of the Norwegian Polar Institute said that the monthly temperature in Longyearbyen had been above average for 86 consecutive months. In 2019, a report created by the Norwegian Meteorological Institute and other organizations predicted that the temperature in Svalbard will continue to rise. Some of the report's specific predictions included increasing air and water temperature, a shorter snow season, and increased rainfall.
There are still huge areas in the Barents Sea and Kara Sea to the east of Svalbard that are free of ice. They should normally be ice-covered.— Ketil Isaksen, November 2016
Beautiful Animals in August
A Critical Weight Loss
Scientists have found that the increasing temperature in Svalbard has been accompanied by a decreasing weight in the local reindeer. A common saying in science is some variation of "correlation doesn't imply causation". Nevertheless, the correlation in this case could be significant.
Scientists from several institutes have been studying the female reindeer and weighing an average of 135 animals every April. As shown in the quote below, the weight loss in the reindeer from 1994 to 2010 doesn't seem to be especially large. The researchers say that 50 kg is a critical weight for females, however. Below this weight, the animals produce small calves or lose their fetuses. When the calves grow up and mate, they produce lightweight youngsters, too.
The survey shows that over 16 years, the adult reindeers' weight declined by 12% -- from 55kg for those born in 1994 to just over 48kg for those born in 2010.— British Ecological Society
Animals Near Longyearbyen With Stored Fat
A Changing Climate and a Potential Threat
The lead researcher in the reindeer study thinks that several factors are involved in the decreasing weight of the animals as the temperature rises, as described below.
Most grass growth in Svalbard occurs in June and July. The increased temperatures at this time produce extra plant matter that enables female reindeer to increase in weight relatively quickly. This in turn stimulates the females to collectively conceive more calves when the animals mate in October.
When winter arrives, reindeer are normally able to find plants such as lichens that survive beneath the snow. Though they have fat deposits at the start of winter, their winter food is important for their survival. The warmer temperatures in Svalbard mean that sometimes winter precipitation falls as rain. This freezes on top of the snow and prevents the reindeer from reaching food. As a result of the lower nutrient availability, calves are miscarried or are born with a low birth weight.
There may be another factor at work. Although the reindeer are decreasing in size, their population has doubled over the last twenty years. This may be increasing the competition for food during the winter. It may also mean that individual animals have an inadequate intake of nutrients, which limits their growth.
The researchers are worried that even though a population of small animals may do okay for a while, eventually there will be so much ice on the ground during winter that Svalbard reindeer will experience a dangerous population decline.
The Future for the Reindeer
The outcome of the decreasing weight of the reindeer is unknown at the present. If the temperature continues to rise and the amount of ice on the ground in the winter increases, there may be serious or even catastrophic die-offs in the population due to winter starvation. On the other hand, if the winters become so warm that the rainwater on the ground never freezes, the surviving animals will have access to food in winter and the average size of the animals may gradually increase—if the plants that they need survive the changing climate.
There are many variables involved in the climate problem in Svalbard and many questions that can't be answered yet. For example, the increasing temperature may increase the population of pests and parasites, which could affect the reindeer. Another potential problem is that some plant species may grow abundantly in the warmer climate and crowd out species that are useful for the reindeer.
The situation in Svalbard and in the rest of the Arctic needs to be monitored carefully, for the sake of both the reindeer and humans. Hopefully the animals will survive for a long time to come. It would be very sad if the weight loss affects the survival of the Svalbard reindeer and very worrying if the problem also affects other subspecies of this iconic animal.
- Information about Svalbard reindeer from the Norwegian Polar Institute
- Facts about the reindeer population from MOSJ (Environmental Monitoring of Svalbard and Jan Mayen)
- Tests show reindeer see UV light from the BBC
- Changing temperatures in Svalbard from the Associated Press
- Warmer winters in the Arctic from Reuters
- British Ecological Society (BES). (2016, December 12). Reindeer left hungry, shrinking in warming world. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 30, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/12/161212084646.htm
- Climate in Svalbard 2100 (A 2019 PDF report from the Norwegian Meteorological Institute and other organizations)
- The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) classifies the population of Rangifer tarandus as a whole in the "Vulnerable" category of its Red List.
Questions & Answers
© 2016 Linda Crampton