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Wild Things

The weird and wonderful in the natural world

Sarah Zielinski

Wild Things

Wild Things

World’s largest reindeer population may fall victim to climate change

reindeer running

When this image was taken in 2003, the reindeer population on Russia’s Taimyr Peninsula numbered more than 800,000, down from 1 million animals in 2000. Now, there are only 600,000 reindeer, scientists say.

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Whether you call them caribou or reindeer, Rangifer tarandus around the world are on the decline. There are about 2.5 million of these animals scattered in more than 20 populations across the Arctic, and most of those populations are shrinking. And scientists largely don’t know why.

Count the world’s largest population of reindeer, occupying the Taimyr Peninsula of Russia, among those that are disappearing. In 2000, there were around a million of the animals, a high after the fall of the Soviet Union and years of Soviet-sponsored hunting finally ended. Now there are only 600,000, according to Andrey Petrov, of the University of Northern Iowa’s Arctic Center. This huge herd of wild reindeer “crashed and is going down,” Petrov said December 12 at a press conference at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco. Petrov thinks that he’s found the culprits behind the decline — a combination of the obvious and the unexpected.

The Taimyr reindeer have been well-studied for decades. Airborne surveys monitored them from 1969 to 2009. Scientists attached collars to some animals to track where they traveled. Other researchers watched the herd and its environment via satellite. Researchers knew that the reindeer spent their summers in calving grounds in the north and migrated south to spend the winter in a bit more hospitable territory. Year after year, the reindeer would return to the same spots.

But that has changed, Petrov revealed at the meeting. Climate change is altering the reindeer’s territory. Temperatures have risen, by about 1.5 degrees Celsius on average. Spring now arrives sooner, resulting in rivers unfreezing earlier in the year. The reindeer now have to swim across the rivers instead of walking across ice, Petrov noted. Since 2000, the reindeer’s summer grounds have moved a bit to the east and north, meaning that the animals’ migration route is now longer. Mosquitoes have also become more of a problem, and wildfires have increased in frequency.

Humans aren’t giving the reindeer much of a break either. Migration routes have been blocked by infrastructure, and pollution has become a problem. (The industrial city of Norilsk is located within the animals’ range.)

And that decline in hunting after the fall of the Soviet Union has proven to be a double-edged sword. The end of state-sponsored hunting let the caribou reach record numbers, but it also let the wolf population increase. Wolves are now a big problem for the reindeer, Petrov said.

And there are still some big unknowns. It is unclear what effect subsistence hunting might be having on the Taimyr population. Some scientists think that these hunters might be killing enough animals to be contributing to the quick decline.

Animals,, Evolution

Chimps look at behinds the way we look at faces

By Sarah Zielinski 8:00am, December 16, 2016
Humans demonstrate something called the inversion effect when gazing at faces. Chimpanzees do this too — when looking at other chimps’ butts.

Why a mountain goat is a better climber than you

By Sarah Zielinski 12:21pm, December 7, 2016
For the first time, scientists have analyzed how a mountain goat climbs a cliff. Big muscles in the shoulder and neck help a lot, they find.

Now there are two bedbug species in the United States

By Sarah Zielinski 9:00am, November 23, 2016
The tropical bedbug hadn’t been seen in Florida for decades. Now scientists have confirmed it has either resurfaced or returned.

Old bonobos have bad eyesight — just like us

By Sarah Zielinski 2:22pm, November 8, 2016
As bonobos age, they lose their ability to see things close up, a new study suggests.
Conservation,, Animals

City dolphins get a boost from better protection and cleaner waters

By Sarah Zielinski 11:08am, November 3, 2016
Bottlenose dolphins near Adelaide, Australia, are slowly growing in number due to better environmental conditions and better protection.

With climate change, grizzly bears may hibernate less

By Sarah Zielinski 1:00pm, October 25, 2016
New research shows that food availability and weather are driving when grizzly bears enter and exit their dens for hibernation.

Painted lady butterflies’ migration may take them across the Sahara

By Sarah Zielinski 11:32am, October 12, 2016
The migratory patterns of painted lady butterflies are largely unknown. Now scientists have found evidence that some may migrate across the Sahara.
Animals,, Conservation

Nature has a dog problem

By Sarah Zielinski 11:00am, September 30, 2016
Free-roaming dogs spread disease, kill wildlife by the thousands and have even caused extinctions. But their full effect on the environment has been little studied.
Animals,, Evolution,, Conservation

Kauai’s native forest birds are headed toward extinction

By Sarah Zielinski 3:00pm, September 13, 2016
Kauai’s honeycreepers are losing their last refuges from mosquito-borne diseases that are spreading due to climate change. Some could become extinct within a decade.
Animals,, Conservation

As IUCN votes on ivory trade, elephants’ future looks bleak

By Sarah Zielinski 9:34am, September 9, 2016
As the IUCN prepares to debate an end to the ivory trade, two new reports show just how poorly Africa’s elephant species are faring.
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