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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

Tail vibrations may have preceded evolution of rattlesnake rattle

By Sarah Zielinski 7:00am, August 31, 2016
The rattle on a rattlesnake evolved just once. A new study contends it may have come out of a common behavior — tail vibration — that snakes use to deter predators.
Animals,, Evolution

The weird mating habits of daddy longlegs

By Sarah Zielinski 11:00am, August 22, 2016
Scientists studying the sex lives of daddy longlegs are finding there’s a lot of diversity among this group of arachnids.

Lizard mom’s microbiome may protect her eggs

By Sarah Zielinski 5:19pm, August 16, 2016
Striped plateau lizard moms don’t do any parenting beyond laying eggs. But they may convey protection from pathogens with help from their microbiome.
Animals,, Ecology

Capybaras may be poised to be Florida’s next invasive rodent

By Sarah Zielinski 11:30am, August 12, 2016
Some capybaras have escaped their owners in Florida. Others have been set loose. Now there are fears the giant rodents could become established in the state.

Bird-friendly yards have a major downside — for birds

By Sarah Zielinski 7:00am, August 3, 2016
Vegetation and feeders bring birds into our yards. But those lures also bring more birds to collide with the windows in our homes.
Animals,, Oceans

Pup kidnapping has a happy ending when a seal gets two moms

By Sarah Zielinski 12:48pm, July 29, 2016
A female fur seal kidnapped another seal’s pup. But this turned out to be a positive the young seal, scientists found.
Oceans,, Ecology

Sea ice algae drive the Arctic food web

By Sarah Zielinski 1:00pm, July 26, 2016
Even organisms that don’t depend on sea ice depend on sea ice algae, a new study finds. But Arctic sea ice is disappearing.

Tiny ants move a ton of soil

By Sarah Zielinski 9:00am, July 20, 2016
For the first time, scientists have quantified how much soil ants move underground.
Animals,, Evolution

For jaguars, armored prey is no obstacle

By Sarah Zielinski 9:00am, July 15, 2016
With big heads, thick teeth and strong muscles, jaguars have evolved to take on dangerous prey, often animals covered with thick armor.

When bird populations shrink, females fly away

By Sarah Zielinski 7:41am, July 13, 2016
In small and shrinking populations of willow warblers, males outnumber females. That’s because girls choose to join bigger groups, a new study finds.
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