A new study shows that the reindeer population located on the Arctic island of Svalbard is getting smaller thanks to climate change.

The survey started 16 years ago and their results were published this Monday in the Global Change Biology Journal. The team of scientists explained that from 1994 to 2014, the years when the study took place, were years of marked climate warming. The publication presented at the British Ecological Society in Liverpool blames global warming of being directly responsible for this phenomenon.

Svalbard Reindeer. Image Credit: Sander Klaassen

The study explains that the wild female Svalbard reindeer is dependent on the forage located on the ground because there is where their direct nutrient source is situated. In that Arctic zone, the snow covers the ground for almost eight months every year, but despite that, they are capable of feeding themselves with no problem.

The research team presented in the study that warmer winters are the reason because this breed is getting smaller and thinner. The climate change produces warmer winters in which the rain-on-snow is common. This produces the “icing” of the ground and makes very difficult, if not impossible, for the animals to have access to their life-sustaining food source.

This lack of alimentation for the female reindeer translates into starvation, calve abortions and newborn specimens with low mass. The reindeer breeds are capable of acquiring food from the snowed ground, clearing the way with their antlers. However, they haven’t managed a method to break the hard ice and get to their food source when the ground is iced in warm winters. Mainly, this is what is causing the weight decay.

The publication shows that this Svalbard reindeer breed has lost 12 percent of their mass in the 16 years since the study started, back in 1994. In that year, the average weight of an adult reindeer was of 55kg (121 lb). By the year 2010, the average was 48kg (106 lb).

The study doesn’t suggest an upcoming extinction

According to the team leader and ecologist at the James Hatton Institute in Aberdeen, Professor Steve Albon, the discoveries made by the study does not mean an imminent species extinction.

The publication proved that because of warm summers there are even more food sources for reindeer groups and that this is causing an unseen population growth. In fact, the reindeer population is in expansion since almost 20 years ago.

“While I doubt we will see the extinction of reindeer across their circumpolar range, Santa may need more to pull the laden sleigh,” Albon said while joking “The implications are that there may well be more smaller reindeer in the Arctic in the coming decades, but possibly at risk of catastrophic die-offs because of increased ice on the ground,” he added.

Other studies made in the Svalbard area shows that other breeds are also soaring in population from the past years. Eva Fuglei, a researcher at the Norwegian Polar Institute and the Fram Centre, explained that Arctic Fox herds are getting slightly bigger regarding recent years. This is because they prevail in the warm winters and take advantage of the reindeer that didn’t manage to stay alive.

Source: The Telegraph