Climate Change Is Causing Reindeer To Literally Shrink

The nightmare before Christmas. Andris Barbans/Shutterstock

Cancel Christmas. You there, put down the decorations. Throw out that turkey. Dump that delicious mulled wine down the sink. Burn all the mistletoe. Everything is ruined, because all of the reindeer are shrinking. No, seriously.

These wandering, vulnerable herbivores haven’t had a good year, actually. Thanks to unusually warm weather thawing out reindeer corpses riddled with disease, a “zombie anthrax” outbreak is taking place in Siberia, and so far thousands of them have been wiped out.

Now it seems that climate change also appears to be robbing others of their food sources.

The lonely Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard has its own reindeer population, and over the past 16 years, their weight has dropped by a remarkable 12 percent. Reindeer born in 1994 weigh around 55 kilograms (121 pounds) as adults, but those born in 2010 end up weighing not much more than 48 kilograms (106 pounds).

“Twelve percent may not sound very much, but given how important body weight is to reproduction and survival, it's potentially huge,” study leader Steve Albon, an ecologist at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland, told AFP.

The Arctic is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and just recently it was a whopping 20°C (36°F) hotter than normal. Make no mistake, climate change is ravaging it, during both summer and winter.

Warmer winter months have led to greater rates of precipitation. This has produced more frost and ice, which seals delicious, nutritious lichen in an icy tomb buried beneath surface. This means that reindeer get less food, and they either die or become undernourished – and so over time, their average weight has decreased, as has their general body size.

“The reindeer starve, aborting their calves or giving birth to much lighter young,” the British Ecological Society (BES) explained at a meeting in Liverpool, UK.

The team noted that the warmer summers are having a very different effect. With more fertile ground available thanks to less ice cover, plants bloom, blossom and proliferate, meaning that at this time of year, there is far more food available.

This has triggered a population boom – the Svalbard population has jumped up to 1,400 from 800 since the 1990s. So ultimately, climate change is producing a lot more smaller deer than ever before.

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It’s not immediately clear how far reindeer can afford to shrink before they are unable to actually function and keep alive. Rabbit-sized, perhaps? Under a business-as-usual scenario, where the world keeps pumping out greenhouse gases at an alarming rate, would we ultimate end up with a million mouse-sized reindeer on Svalbard?

We’re wildly speculating now, but this would certainly change up Christmas quite a bit. Santa’s sleigh would look utterly ludicrous.

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