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Svalbard Reindeer in Norway: Facts and Potential Problems

Updated on December 19, 2016
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Linda Crampton is a science teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about animals and plants.

A Svalbard reindeer
A Svalbard reindeer | Source

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 reindeers 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 reindeer 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.

Norway (solid red) and the Svalbard archipelago (red circle) in relation to the Arctic
Norway (solid red) and the Svalbard archipelago (red circle) in relation to the Arctic | Source
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A markerSvalbard, Norway -
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B markerNorway -
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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

Reindeer Facts

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. 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.

An individual without antlers
An individual without antlers | Source

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 reindeer. 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 and occasionally in early December. Females form their new antlers in June and generally keep them until the next June. Therefore it's highly likely that all of Santa's reindeer are female.

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 Svalbard Reindeer

  • 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.

The reindeer has a variable appearance depending on its colour, body weight and the presence, absence or developmental stage of the antlers.
The reindeer has a variable appearance depending on its colour, body weight and the presence, absence or developmental stage of the antlers. | Source

Increasing Temperature in Svalbard and the Arctic

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 was warmer than average. According to him, "Svalbard is a very good spot to show what's happening in the Arctic at the moment".

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

Reindeer Near Longyearbyen With Stored Fat for Winter

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 female population 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 the ground 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. Despite the miscarriages and small calves, an increasing number of reindeer are being born. This may in turn increase 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 rugged beauty of Svalbard
The rugged beauty of Svalbard | Source

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 reindeer 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.

A Longyearbyen church and reindeer
A Longyearbyen church and reindeer | Source

© 2016 Linda Crampton

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    • Buildreps profile image

      Buildreps 7 months ago from Europe

      Interesting facts. I didn't know reindeer can see UV light. The Arctic region is very vulnerable to even the minutest global temperature fluctuations. Let's hope temperatures take a nose dive the coming decades.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 7 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Such beautiful creatures....surely we will find a way to protect them...hopefully....they are such symbols of the holiday season....it is my hope that articles like this one will, in some way, protect a species from the harm humans can do. Thank you for writing this, Linda.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Buildreps. I hope conditions improve in the Arctic, too. The situation there is worrying.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, Bill. I agree—the reindeer are beautiful creatures. I hope they have a good future.

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 7 months ago from Dubai

      Great information on the Svalbard Reindeer. Global warming is affecting all the species in this world. I hope this species of reindeer continues to survive in spite of the weight loss.

    • KsenijaZ profile image

      Ksenija 7 months ago from Novo mesto, Slovenia

      Such a great hub! More people should read it - global warming is real. Thank you.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 7 months ago from Oklahoma

      Just a Beautiful, smelly animal:-)

      Great read.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, Vellur. I appreciate your visit. Yes, the rising temperatures are causing some serious problems. Like you, I hope the reindeer continue to survive in spite of the problems that they face.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, KsenijaZ. It's nice to meet you!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the comment and the amusement, Larry!

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 7 months ago from Northern California, USA

      Perfect timing for such an article. Interesting facts about reindeer, especially the tidbit about the antlers and how it is probable that Santa’s reindeer were all female because of how the antlers grow and are shed. Merry Christmas!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Marlene. Thank you very much for the visit and the comment. Merry Christmas to you, too!

    • truthfornow profile image

      truthfornow 7 months ago from New Orleans, LA

      Liked the part about changing appearances of the reindeer. Hope that we are able to help save and protect these beautiful animals.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, truthfornow. It's interesting that the reindeer change their appearance so significantly. I hope that we can help them, too.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 7 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      They remind me of the Christmas reindeer. Now, I know a bit about them when I see them displayed as decors.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I think that some of them look like Christmas reindeer, too. They are interesting animals. Thanks for the visit, aesta1.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 7 months ago from USA

      Fascinating facts about their abilities (although so sad that they're encountering this potential threat to their survival).

      Now the secret is out that Santa's reindeer were female after all. Who names males Dancer, Prancer, VIXEN, and Cupid? And rumor is that Comet was actually Connie and Donner was actually Donna. (We've misunderstood the lyrics all along.) I hate to say that Blitzen was really named B*tchin'; she was always pesky trouble. Merry Christmas! I'll be watching for Santa and his girls this weekend!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the great comment, Flourish. I love your wit and humour!

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 7 months ago from South Africa

      What a very interesting hub about reindeer! Those antlers are amazing, and even more amazing is that it can be dropped. I'm in awe! Quite impossible to believe that such extraordinary life is spontaneous evolution. Somebody up there must have designed all creatures in detail, I'm sure!

      Longyearbyen's summers are as warm as our winters.

      Thanks for another very interesting article, Alicia!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Martie. Thank you for commenting. It would certainly be different living in Longyearbyen compared to where I live now. I'd love to visit the area, preferably in summer. I hope you have an enjoyable Christmas.

    • Suhail and my dog profile image

      Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 6 months ago from Mississauga, ON

      Hi Linda,

      Thank you for writing an article on an area of my interest - wildlife and environment conservation - if I may.

      I knew Svalbard from another wild animal that I like and is going through problems of catastrophic nature due climate change - polar bear.

      Because of Svalbard, Norway is included among the 5 countries that are jointly tasked to address the issue of polar bear conservation (USA, Canada, Russia, and Denmark due Greenland are other four).

      This size problem in Svalbard reindeer is a new for me. I had never heard of this before. Thanks for enlightening your followers with this little known issue.

      I personally think that the size reduction may go in reindeer' favour under the climate change. They may need less fat to protect themselves in extreme winters of the area and offer less body surface for heating up in summers. But then it is me.

      Regards,

      Suhail

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 6 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for sharing the facts and your thoughts, Suhail. The situation for polar bears is worrying. I'm watching the news closely. The changing climate in the Arctic is of great concern

    • Suhail and my dog profile image

      Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 6 months ago from Mississauga, ON

      Linda,

      I just wanted to add this piece after watching a Nature TV's program on wild Africa, yesterday. They were talking about a deer species (springbok) of a particular region, suggesting that its size is becoming shorter and this poses a new problem for the species in summer months.

      Therefore, I believe I really need to catch up with this new size to weather correlation ha-ha.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 6 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for adding this information, Suhail. There's always something interesting in nature to surprise and puzzle us!

    • profile image

      Genna East 6 months ago

      What a great article, and timely, too. The Svalbard reindeer are magnificent animals. I was saddened but not surprised about the rising temps and loss of ice in the Barents Sea and Kara Sea to the east of Svalbard and the rest of the Arctic. I wish more people would understand that climate change is not a hoax, and the serious domino effect it brings to all living things.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 6 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Genna. Thanks for the comment. Climate change is certainly very worrying. The future is of great concern, especially in the Arctic.

    • bodylevive profile image

      BODYLEVIVE 6 months ago from Alabama, USA

      It is indeed a beautiful creature. I've never seen a real one before. This is probably as close as it'll get for me. Great job, loved the facts--very interesting and really enjoyed the read.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you! I think the reindeer is both beautiful and interesting. I hope its population does well in the future.

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