Do sled dogs turn Svalbard greener? | Polarjournal
In winter, dog sleds are the best way to get around, along with snowmobiles. As dogs excrete their waste (front right), nutrients from the waste enter the soil and provide nourishment for plants and microorganisms. (Photo: Michael Wenger)

One type of animal living on Svalbard, in addition to the usual Arctic creatures, are dogs. More than 1,000 of these four-legged companions reside on the archipelago and were once the main means of transportation. Now mainly used for tourist activities, however, man’s best friend also seems to have an ecological impact on the region, as a new study shows: they appear to be turning the Arctic tundra greener.

More nutrients in the soil, probably thanks to dog waste and dog food, lead to higher productivity around areas where animal husbandry is practiced in Svalbard. That’s the finding of a study by an international research team led by Dr. Kristine Bakke Westergaard and Dr. Jesamine Bartlett of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research NINA. As a result, the vegetation at these sites will turn green faster and longer, which in turn may have an impact on the organisms found at such sites. However, the results of the study have not yet been peer-reviewed and published in a journal, but are available as a so-called preprint at EcoEvoRxiv. The peer review process is still to be carried out.

A greener Svalbard through animal husbandry

For the study, the authors looked at the development of plant areas at sites of animal husbandry in Svalbard and compared them with natural sites with and without increased natural nutrient input. These include, for example, bird cliffs or colonies such as Alkornet at the entrance to Isfjorden. A total of 31 sites on the west side of the main island of Spitsbergen were selected by the scientists. Included were 12 active dog yards, four former livestock sites in inhabited places on Svalbard, a horse stable (near the airport in Longyearbyen), six bird cliffs and eight different tundra areas for comparison.

To be able to determine whether the human- and domestic/animal-influenced sites are actually greener than the reference sites, the team examined satellite imagery from the past forty years for green intensity using specially developed software and created a time series of green trend at the sites. “Vegetation greenness steadily increased at the seabird cliffs and tundra reference sites during recent decades, but not as rapidly as at the animal husbandry sites.,” the team concludes of the comparison, aresult of a possible influence of the changing climate in Svalbard.

Another finding of the research concerned the start of greening each year and the duration. “We observed a shift toward earlier green-up across all sites along with a slight shift towards later senescence,” the authors write in response.

Sled dogs not only fertilize the areas around the kennels, but indirectly protect wild birds from predators, which increases the fertilization effect due to the number of birds. But this also poses great risks such as disease transmission due to the proximity to humans and animals. (Photo: Michael Wenger)

Dog kennels bring advantages and risks

The research team believes that in addition to the direct fertilization effect from the waste and food, indirect protection of wild birds such as geese and ducks may also play a role. This is due to the fact that these birds are increasingly attracted by the protection and come close to the kennels to feed and also breed, which could lead to an increase in fertilization.

But because the study only examined the greening of the sites, the team of authors cautions against drawing any direct conclusions too quickly. Further direct examination of the sites for soil chemical composition, a comparison of plant communities and their species composition, and physical data comparisons are considered imperative by the researchers to determine the causes of the greater greening. After all, the question arises as to whether the greening is directly related to the excretions or is a result of historic nutrient supply.

In addition, they also warn of risks that could result from the dog kennels and their inhabitants. These include, above all, the introduction of pollutants, eutrophication and the spread of non-native plant species, which are much more common in such places. There is also the risk of disease transmission from wild birds to dogs and vice versa, an aspect that is particularly important in view of the rampant avian flu epidemic.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

Link to study: Gallois et al (2023) Preprint EcoEvoRxiv, Paws for thought: Impacts of animal husbandry on tundra 2 greening in High Arctic Svalbard.

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