Reindeer in Svalbard generally lead a fairly carefree life: they are hunted only in some valleys, they do not have to fear predators, and there is plenty of food for them. And this is obviously reflected in their physique – Svalbard reindeer are among the fattest ungulates of all. This is what doctoral student Sam Dwinnell, who is studying how reindeer respond to climate change in Svalbard, has come to.
In her study, Sam Dwinnell not only observes animal behavior, but also examines their physiques in relation to climate change. Previously, the US American from Minnesota had worked with ungulates in the Rocky Mountains, among other places, but she had never seen reindeer. When she came to Svalbard a year ago for her doctoral thesis, she was surprised to see how well-fed – or rather how fat – the reindeer are there. She says her scale ranges from zero to six, and many of the reindeer in Svalbard end up at five.
“They are the fattest ungulates I’ve ever seen,” Dwinnell, who is doing her PhD at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), told Svalbardposten. “We measure their fat with ultrasound on the buttocks and other parts of the body. It could be that one of the reasons they’re so fat is because they’re not hunted by predators and can spend all their time eating. But they need that layer of fat to survive the winters.” That’s because winters are harsh in Svalbard and the reindeer have no way to move to milder regions. However, with climate change, the food supply could increase.
“Warmer summers mean there is more food. This is a unique environment for my research because here you can eliminate all the conditions that complicate the ecological system, like predators and heat stress. The reindeer in Svalbard live in an ideal world,” she says.
According to the last census in 2020, about 22,000 reindeer live on Svalbard. By the time they were placed under protection in 1925, they had been nearly wiped out due to heavy hunting.
“There are actually six populations of Svalbard reindeer that are genetically different from each other because they have been isolated. A lot of people think we have a lot of reindeer here, but when you consider that their genetics are the only ones of this species in the world, you might understand that it’s important to take care of them,” Dwinnell explains.
Even though rising temperatures mean more food for reindeer in the summer, they make life more difficult for the animals in the winter. If it rains during the cold season, the water seeps through the snow and forms a layer of ice on the ground, sometimes making it impossible for the animals to reach their food underneath. However, Dwinnell has found that the animals respond to such unfavorable conditions and move to areas where food is more accessible.
An immediate threat to Svalbard reindeer is garbage left years or decades ago and fishing nets that wash up on beaches. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of trash in the tundra, and the year I was here, one of the things I saw was a big buck that had meters of steel wire in its antlers. I think the reindeer will be better off if such things are removed,” Dwinnell says.
She is thinking about whether she would like to continue living on Svalbard after she finishes her PhD. “Even though I try to leave as little trace as possible every day, it is clear that it is impossible to live an ‘invisible’ life here too. Svalbard is a unique place to live, but it’s difficult to live here sustainably.”
Julia Hager, PolarJournal