Reindeer Threatened by Shrinking Habitat, Climate Change

Image: Reindeer Threatened by Shrinking Habitat, Climate Change

Wednesday, 18 Dec 2013 08:18 AM

By Ellito Jager

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A definite link has been established between habitat stability and genetic diversity thanks to scientific research on endangered species of reindeer, the Christian Science Monitor reports.

Reindeer or caribou populations are shrinking. Lands where the animals can find lichen — a fungus — to eat are dwindling. Meanwhile, wildlife populations are being cut off from one another.

For example, herds on the east side of Hudson Bay, in northeastern Canada, are being isolated from those on the west. This would limit the chances that breeding will create the kind of genetic diversity necessary for species survival during climate change.

The reindeer could lose much of their habitat within 60 years.

"These animals have already faced two climate changes: We're now in a warming period, but ten to twenty thousand years ago, the Northern Hemisphere was very cold," said Glenn Yannic of Université Laval in Quebec.

In an article published in Nature Climate Change, Yannic wrote that climate change since the Ice Age has reshaped species' geographic distribution contributing to genetic diversity. The scientist and his colleagues, who studied DNA samples from 1,297 animals, mapped out genetic variations within reindeer populations in North America, Europe, and Asia. Their findings tied genetic diversity to habitat. Climatically stable regions fostered high genetic diversity.

Scientists do not want the reindeer to follow in the footsteps of the wood bison which became locally extinct as a result of overhunting and the loss of their natural grasslands habitat.

"If you want to conserve the maximum of genetic diversity, we have to focus on regions that remain stable," Yannic said, citing the Alaskan and Russian arctic. "Alaska, in particular, has been very stable for a long time over the past and for the future."

The most stable habitat for reindeer can be found north of Alaska's Brooks Range and along its massive western coast.

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