Reindeer in the Southern Hemisphere

This week’s blog focuses on the introduction of reindeer to obscure places around the world. I will pay particular attention to the introduction of reindeer in the lesser-known Kerguelen Islands.

Reindeer and Penguins co-existing on South Georgia Island (image from: https://assets.atlasobscura.com/article_images/62073/image.jpg)

The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd is a re-introduced herd. Reindeer were once native to Scotland, and before that they could also be found across England. In fact, cave paintings of reindeer have been found as far south as the Pyrenees in Northern Spain/Southern France. A leftover memory from when the planet was no doubt a lot colder. However, the native reindeer in Scotland were thought to have died out between 800 and 1100 years ago due to both over-hunting and climate change related habitat loss. The story of our current herd of 150 reindeer began in 1949 when a Swedish reindeer herder called Mikel Utsi and his wife, Dr Ethel Lindgren, began their honeymoon in Aviemore. Mr Utsi gazed out at the Cairngorm mountains and saw the perfect conditions for reindeer but, alas, no reindeer. Mr Utsi would have seen cold and windy temperatures, a tundra landscape, and sub-arctic flora. This is because the Cairngorm mountains are the only place in the United Kingdom with sub-arctic conditions. Mr Utsi apparently spent days looking for the reindeer in the hills before dropping down to the local pub to ask the locals about their reindeer. It was here that he found out that there were no reindeer. His honeymoon doesn’t sound like your stereotypical relaxing and romantic honeymoon, at least they got some time in the pub, but his marriage withstood and together Mr Utsi and Dr Lindgren made it their life’s work to reintroduce reindeer to Scotland. It started with 8 reindeer being shipped over from Sweden in 1952 and many subsequent initial imports. And the rest, as they say, is history. We now have a reintroduced herd with a variety of genetic diversity.

Mr Utsi and Sarek the reindeer on-board the coincidentally named S.S. Sarek. Circa 1955.

Other herds of reindeer have also been introduced to different countries around the world in the not so distant past. Some reindeer have been introduced into locations where there have never been reindeer previously. Iceland is a good example of a country where reindeer have been introduced successfully. Although, this introduction wasn’t without its problems. Predominantly located in the east of Iceland, Icelandic reindeer were once close to extinction having been introduced between the years of 1771-1787. Up until the year of 1940 their numbers had gradually dropped to approximately 100-200 but stocks have now risen to between 6000-7000. The reason for the fluctuations in population is probably due to natural circumstances such as insufficient grazing, range deterioration and volcanic eruptions. More information about reindeer in Iceland can be found in a previous blog post written by Bobby: https://www.cairngormreindeer.co.uk/2020/04/17/the-curious-history-of-reindeer-in-iceland/.

Most reindeer and caribou around the world live in the arctic and sub-arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere as these are the conditions that they’ve evolved to thrive in over the course of evolution. But reindeer are incredibly adaptable and resilient, and humans have attempted to introduce them to a variety of places, some even south of the equator. Reindeer were introduced to the South Georgia Islands (about 1000 miles east of Cape Horn, Argentina) by Norwegian whalers, where the reindeer lived alongside penguins for around 100 years. However, in 2010 the government decided to eradicate the reindeer as the number were increasing and putting too much pressure on the island’s native plants and wildlife. By 2017 all reindeer were eradicated from the island. Approximately 6,750 reindeer were culled in total. More information about reindeer in South Georgia can be found here: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/reindeer-in-the-southern-hemisphere.

The South Georgia Islands (image from: http://si.wsj.net/public/resources/images/BN-ML303_southg_P_20160204101610.jpg)
The South Georgia Islands (image from: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/f6/88/76/f68876f58629710a940a1bf0a1c0d593.jpg)

The introduction of reindeer to the Kerguelen Islands, also known as the Desolation Islands, is a slightly happier story. The reindeer remain as residents today in these islands that are located over 2000 miles from their nearest neighbour, Madagascar. The Kerguelen Islands are a group of islands in the sub-Antarctic (southern Indian Ocean) made from igneous (volcanic) rock. They are part of a submerged microcontinent called the Kerguelen Subcontinent. Kerguelen’s climate is considered to be a tundra climate with cold temperatures and high wind speeds. The mountains are frequently covered in snow and the average annual temperature is 4.9 degrees Celsius. Lichens, grasses, and mosses grow plentifully as does the famous, indigenous Kerguelen cabbage which was popular with sailors in their bid to increase their vitamin C intake. The main indigenous animals are wingless insects, seabirds, seals, and penguins but there has been plenty of introduced animals such as cats, rabbits, sheep, and reindeer (interestingly, all cats on the island are black and white because the original 3 introduced cats were black and white).

The Kerguelen Islands from afar (image from: https://www.islandconservation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/island-conservation-preventing-extinctions-invasive-species-Kerguelen-Islands-feat.jpg)

The French originally introduced Swedish reindeer to the islands in 1956. The Kerguelen Islands were used as one of the whaling stations, where whalers would bring their catch for processing. Reindeer were introduced to be shot for food, as well as being hunted for sport. However, when the whaling industry collapsed, the reindeer stayed and there is now an estimated 3000 – 5000 reindeer on the islands. The reindeer were originally introduced to Ile des Rennes (Reindeer Island), also called Ile Australia. However, the reindeer eventually swam across to the main island of La Grande Terre a short distance away.

Reindeer and Penguins co-existing on the Kerguelen Islands (image from: http://www.pelagicodyssey.ca/ao2/64.jpg)

The conditions in the Kerguelen Islands are very similar to the conditions found in parts of Scandinavia. However, it would be interesting to know how the reindeer adapted to the change in seasons as they moved from the Northern to the Southern hemisphere. And, moreover, the effect that reindeer have had on the island’s vegetation. Researchers have previously believed that very high grazing pressure over time pushes the ecosystem in a positive direction, so that over time, the areas that are grazed become dominated by productive plants, such as nutrient-rich species of grasses. However, The Ecosystem Finnmark project believe that reindeer have a negative effect on grazing areas, even in the most productive summer pastures.

The Kerguelen Islands (image from: https://c1.staticflickr.com/8/7441/9383732243_19ecdd620b_b.jpg)

Ben

Reindeer as a Species

On our kids quiz in the Paddocks is the question ‘Name a sub-species of reindeer’, and I notice it’s often the one that people get stuck at (despite the fact that the answers are there on the display boards). I’ve realised over the years however, that this is often down to a basis lack of understanding of a percentage of the population of the concept of species and sub-species, rather than anything else. So therefore, allow me to explain.

As a zoology student (all too many years ago, so bear with me if my science is rusty!), the classification of all organic species using a system of ‘taxonomic rank’ was drilled into us. The system still in use today was founded by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in the 16th Century and brought order and clarity to the then chaotic and disorganised way of naming and categorizing all types of life. No wonder I loved learning about taxonomy – lists and organisation? My kinda thing.

Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778)

The Linnaean system breaks down all living things into 7 major kingdoms, animals being one and plants another, and then each kingdom is broken down further, into different phyla. Then phyla are broken down once more to the next level, which is class, and the system carries on through order; family, genus and finally species. So reindeer can be categorized as such:

Kingdom: Animalia (Common name: Animals)

Phylum: Chordata (Chordates  – meaning ‘possessing a nerve cord’)

Class: Mammalia (Mammals)

Order: Arteriodactyla (Even-toed hooved mammals)

Family: Cervidae (the Deer family)

Genus: Rangifer

Species: tarandus

 

Biological classification chart

The two part ‘binomial’ name Rangifer tarandus is perhaps more commonly known as a ‘Latin name’, and every species in the world has one. You will be familiar with ours as Homo sapiens, and like humans, reindeer are the only species within their genus, Rangifer. A regular question from visitors is ‘So….how are reindeer different from deer?’ Bizarrely, it can be quite hard explaining to people that reindeer are deer. My usual analogy is to get people to think about lions and tigers. Both obviously cats, so therefore members of the cat family (‘Felidae’), but at the same time both clearly different species from each other. So while reindeer are a member of the deer family, they are a different species from other types of deer. For example, moose, red deer and muntjac – all clearly distinguishable in looks from one another, but crucially also genetically different.

But then, as with most things, it all gets a little more complicated. Not content with 7 major divisions, scientists introduced sub-divisions in order to break down everything further. So now there are, among others, sub-classes, sub-families, sub-genera etc. Arghh! While Rangifer has no sub-genus, there are some subspecies to contend with, and this is the relevant info that we hope people will track down in our Paddocks. All seven subspecies of reindeer and caribou are all still Rangifer tarandus, so effectively all genetically the same animal, but a subspecies is shown by adding a third name after the binomial. Just to clarify too, reindeer and caribou are the same animal, but reindeer are the domesticated version of caribou. The differences are also geographical, in that reindeer are found in Europe and Asia, while caribou are found in North America and Greenland.

So back to our seven subspecies. We have:

Eurasian Tundra reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus): Open-ground dwelling subspecies, which the majority of all domesticated reindeer belong to, including ours.

Our big bull Crann, a ‘tundra reindeer’

Eurasian Forest reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus): Boreal forest dwelling subspecies, typically taller than tundra reindeer.

Forest reindeer

Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus): Smallest subspecies, endemic to the arctic archipelago of the Svalbard islands. Short legged!

Svalbard reindeer

Barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus): Migratory subspecies of open ground. The most similar of the caribous to our tundra reindeer.

Barren-ground caribou

North American woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou): Largest caribou subspecies, often darker in colour. As the name suggests, they live in forests, and generally don’t migrate.

Woodland caribou Copyright Paul Sutherland

Peary caribou (Rangifer tarandus pearyi): Smallest of the caribou subspecies.

Peary Caribou Copyright Trent University 

Alaskan or Porcupine caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti): Migratory subspecies most closely resembling the barren-ground caribou, and named after the Porcupine river, which runs through much of their range. The longest migrating land mammal on Earth.

Porcupine caribou

There have been two other subspecies in the past but these have now died out – the East Greenland Caribou and the Queen Charlotte Island Caribou.

So there you go, a brief taxonomy lesson, and congratulations to anyone who has stuck with me, as well as apologies for some slight over-simplifications for any scientists amongst you. Hopefully you’ll have all learnt something though – I’m a big believer of sneaking in educational blogs among the pretty pictures and funny stories we often post! And if it’s all too much and you’d just prefer something a bit more light-hearted, head off and google pictures of Svalbard reindeer. You’ll not be disappointed.

Hen