Saturday, June 27, 2015

Svalbard Reindeer

Reindeer on the Svalbard islands are a sub-species of the reindeer that live in Greenland and Norway and elsewhere in the Arctic. They are fatter with shorter legs; thus they are adapted to the extreme climate. Svalbard is an arctic desert -- not much snow at all, very dry, few nutrients in the thin layer of soil, much permafrost, quite sparse vegetation. The reindeer live on the few varieties of moss and lichens growing on the permafrost.

We saw at least a few reindeer on almost every hike that we took from the boat, and also some quite near to the town of Longyearbyen. There's a hunting season for people who live there, which is carefully monitored to cull the herds. The hunters who receive a permit and take a reindeer eat the meat and use the hides for warmth. The reindeer meat that we sampled on the boat was from mainland reindeer, which are more numerous.

The reindeer at rest in the first photo above is a tiny spot on the
right hillside in this photo. 
The cliff in the photo looks greyish. Actually it's very dark rock COVERED with nesting kittiwakes. These tens of thousands of birds feed at sea; thus their droppings are rich in nutrients, and the vegetation below the colonies is much greener than elsewhere. Our hike was headed for this amazing bird colony, but we stopped to observe several reindeer, who obviously love to graze on this comparatively rich vegetation.

Female reindeer have a shovel-like tine on their antlers which they use to scrape away snow and get to lichens in the winter. They thus keep their antlers; the males use the antlers in fights over females and then lose them.

Our guide shows us an antler shed by a reindeer last fall.
Reindeer grazing near the kittiwake nests.
On a different walk. At left, antlers that have been shed.
At right: a reindeer skull with a full set of antlers attached.
Reindeer grazing on purple saxifrage.
Purple saxifrage in bloom on the tundra.
Reindeer in the snow, seen on a different hike. Because their fur is hollow and fluffy, it's especially good at thermal insulation.
Baby reindeer belonging to the pair above.
Reindeer fur that the guide showed us.
We expected to hear that polar bears to prey on reindeer, but we learned that the reindeer are too fast for them. Though a polar bear can sprint, their heavy fur (also hollow and very effective at insulation) means that they become overheated if they try to do a long run, as they would need to do to take down reindeer.
Reindeer antlers decorating a house in Longyearbyen.

1 comment:

Jeanie said...

That baby reindeer is adorable -- though I spot no red noses in your photos! Not QUITE at the North Pole! Intriguing terrain and very interesting about the polar bears.