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.
David Braun was a speaker on a Lindblad-National Geographic Expedition: Land of the Ice Bears, An In-Depth Exploration of Arctic Svalbard.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
National Geographic-Lindblad Expeditions to the Arctic
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.
Also from David Braun: National Geographic-Lindblad Expedition to the Galapagos (2012)
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.