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Svalbard Reindeer: Thriving Again on the Tundra

Perhaps the most endearing animal observed on our summer 2014 sojourn in the Arctic was the Svalbard reindeer, a subspecies of reindeer endemic to the archipelago midway between continental Norway and the North Pole. Depleted by hunting over more than six decades, the Svalbard reindeer has been recovering strongly under Norway’s conservation measures, and there may now be as many as 10,000 of them on the islands, which together have a land area roughly the size of West Virginia.

We were to see reindeer at various places on our weeklong cruise through Svalbard, but nowhere did we get so close to them than we did on our hike on the 5,000-square-kilometer (1,900-square-mile) island of Edgeøya, which forms part of the large Søraust-Svalbard Nature Reserve. The sanctuary is home to reindeer and polar bears, so armed naturalists from National Geographic Explorer made a thorough inspection of the landing area to make sure our safety was secured; a hungry bear could easily charge a group of tasty tourists.

An armed naturalist watches for polar bears as passengers from National Geographic Explorer land on the Svalbard island Edgeøya for an outing on the tundra. Photograph by David Braun.
An armed naturalist watches for polar bears as passengers from National Geographic Explorer land on the Svalbard island Edgeøya for an outing on the tundra. In the background a naturalist keeps an eye on the sea for polar bears that might approach from the ocean. They are powerful swimmers and often attack prey from the water. Photograph by David Braun.

 

Lindblad-National-Geographic-Expeditions

David Braun was a speaker on a Lindblad-National Geographic Expedition: Land of the Ice Bears, An In-Depth Exploration of Arctic Svalbard.   

All posts in this series   Photo album

 

The abundance of reindeer on the island may be something of a saving grace for polar bears, as the predators struggle to find seals on sea ice disappearing from the effects of climate change. Researchers from the University of Oslo found indications of a predator-prey relationship between the two species on Edgeøya a couple of years ago by testing the responses of reindeer to humans disguised as polar bears. “The alert, flight initiation and escape distances were 1.6, 2.5 and 2.3 times longer, respectively, when Svalbard reindeer were encountered by a person disguised as a polar bear compared to a person in dark hiking gear,” they reported in the online research journal BioOne in 2012. Population increase of polar bears on Svalbard and decrease in sea-ice cover in the Arctic region during summer probably results in more frequent interactions with reindeer on the archipelago, the scientists suggested.

The threat of a bear attack was a good reason to be a little on edge on Edgeøya, and we were cautioned to always stay very close to our naturalist. But if there was a bear near us, it remained undetected, although we did walk in the tracks of bears in a few places and our guide pointed out a pile of polar bear dung.

Paw prints of a polar bear on Edgeøya island in Svalbard. Photograph by David Braun.
Paw prints of a polar bear on Edgeøya island in Svalbard. Photograph by David Braun.
Footprints of National Geographic Explorer adventurers on Edgeøya. Photograph by David Braun.
Footprints of National Geographic Explorer adventurers on Edgeøya. Photograph by David Braun.

We had made no attempt to disguise ourselves as polar bears, so consequently the reindeer showed no sign of being nervous of us. Several stepped a little closer to get a better view of us.

Curious Svalbard reindeer pause to look at visitors from National Geographic Explorer. Photograph by David Braun.
Curious Svalbard reindeer pause to look at visitors from National Geographic Explorer. Photograph by David Braun.

Svalbard reindeer have stubby legs and very shaggy hair. “The thickness of the coat contributes to the short-legged appearance and makes even starved animals appear fat in the winter,” says the Norwegian Polar Institute on a web page devoted to the Svalbard reindeer. They eat frantically during the short Arctic summer so as to build a decent layer of fat to see them through the polar winter famine. Starvation is the main cause of reindeer mortality, the Norwegian Polar Institute notes, particularly when rain freezes over pastures and the animals can’t get through the ice to the plants they eat.

Hot reindeer poop penetrates the melting snow cover on the Svalbard island Edgeøya. Photograph by David Braun.
Hot reindeer poop penetrates the melting snow cover on the Svalbard island Edgeøya. Photograph by David Braun.

This summer Svalbard reindeer are getting plenty to eat. A study published in July found that the reindeer are in a boom cycle, possibly because of warming temperatures in the archipelago. Plants that reindeer eat during the relatively short Arctic summer are available for longer periods as the region warms, according to an article published in National Geographic Weird & Wild.

The arctic summer provides a short season for reindeer to stuff themselves and build up their body fat for the winter. Photograph by David Braun.
The Arctic summer provides a short season for reindeer to stuff themselves and build up their body fat for the winter. Photograph by David Braun.

“Having better food resources means the reindeer are in better condition and therefore more able to cope with the Arctic winter,” explained Jonathan Codd of the U.K.’s University of Manchester, whose team assisted in the census that found reindeer in one part of Svalbard increased by 30 percent in 2014 — a total of 300 new calves. Nonetheless, scientists worry that warmer winters may cause heavier snowfalls, and refreezing could create an ice barrier over the plants, causing starvation and a population crash.

It’s all part of the challenge of surviving on the tundra.

In my next post I write about the thrill of being in the midst of whales and great flocks of screeching sea birds. You can follow all our Svalbard expedition adventures here.

Photograph of Svalbard reindeer by David Braun
Photograph of Svalbard reindeer by David Braun
Svalbard reindeer on a midsummer day. Photograph by David Braun.
Svalbard reindeer on a midsummer day. Photograph by David Braun.

 

National Geographic-Lindblad Expeditions to the Arctic

Land Of The Ice Bears: An In-Depth Exploration Of Arctic Svalbard

Lindblad-National Geographic, a Ten-Year Expedition of Inspiration and Discovery
In this National Geographic-behind-the-scenes interview, Sven-Olof Lindblad, founder and president of Lindblad Expeditions, talks about the impetus behind the Lindblad-National Geographic partnership, some of the accomplishments, and his thoughts of the future.

More about National Geographic Explorer.

Svalbard reindeer graze contentedly on the island of Edgeøya. Photograph by David Braun.
Svalbard reindeer graze contentedly on the island of Edgeøya. Photograph by David Braun.

Also from David Braun: National Geographic-Lindblad Expedition to the Galapagos (2012)