The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean is home to majestic creatures like polar bears, Arctic foxes, and reindeer. Today, their icy home is melting, and that’s disrupting life in some strange ways. For instance, a new study suggests it’s causing reindeer to eat more seaweed.
That’s because as temperatures rise, more precipitation is falling as rain instead of snow. That makes the ice thicker, making it hard for reindeer to access vegetation underneath it.
The new paper, published in the journal Ecosphere Tuesday, suggests that the Svalbard reindeer, a reindeer subspecies that has adapted to life on the Svalbard islands by having short legs and a round body, may be preparing for climate change by shifting its diet. Instead of digging through the ice to reach the lichen or other plants, they’ve been moving to the shoreline to eat kelp washed ashore.
The researchers, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, began their exploration of seaweed-eating reindeer when they noticed a bunch of reindeer eating along the shore. Over the course of nine years, they studied 2,199 reindeer, measured the ice thickness, collected some good ol’ fecal samples, and analyzed where reindeer wearing GPS collars were roaming. The authors divided the reindeer into terrestrial or shoreline feeders; those chilling at most 820 feet away from the shoreline were considered seaweed lovers.
As was expected, more reindeer ate along the shore when the ice thickness was above average, likely due to warmer weather and, hence, more precipitation. Up to 30 percent of the population a year was feeding along the shore during this analysis. The researchers see this as an example of “behavioral plasticity” in light of a changing climate.
It’s unclear if seaweed is enough to keep them afloat, though. The researchers found that the seaweed was helping supplement their diets, but the team doesn’t yet know the amount of nutrition this new food source provides.
“It seems they can’t sustain themselves on seaweed,” said author Brage Bremset Hansen, a biologist at the university, in a statement. “They do move back and forth between the shore and the few ice-free vegetation patches every day, so it is obvious that they have to combine it with normal food, whatever they can find.” Plus, the scientists believe a seaweed-rich diet was giving the animals diarrhea.
Still, overall this is good news. The species is showing resilience in light of a pretty dire change to their ecosystem. Whether it’ll be enough to help them survive climate change, which has warmed Svalbard an incredible 9 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1970s, remains to be seen.
“The bigger picture is that, although we sometimes observe that populations crash during extremely icy winters, the reindeer are surprisingly adaptive,” Hansen said in a statement. “They have different solutions for new problems like rapid climate change. They have a variety of strategies, and most are able to survive surprisingly hard conditions.”