Reindeer are eating seaweed to survive climate change
As the planet warms due to climate change, the Arctic winters are seeing longer open water spells and less sea ice. It also now rains more often than snow during this period, something that is directly affecting wildlife like the Svalbard reindeer.
Named after the group of Norwegian islands they’ve lived on for 5,000 years, these 20,000–plus reindeer are now eating seaweed to survive the increasingly warm winters. According to researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Centre for Biodiversity Dynamic, the reindeer are turning to seaweed because the plants they normally eat are becoming harder to get to.
More rain is now falling instead of snow, which causes the snow on the ground to freeze over (also known as “icing”), burying the tundra vegetation under thick ice.
Kelp isn’t as nutritious as the tundra plants the reindeer normally eat. It also seems to be giving the reindeer diarrhea, probably from the salt content. Currently, seaweed is being more or less used as an emergency ration, with the reindeer turning to it only during spells of severe icing. According to the study, the kelp-eating has been happening for over 10 years.
It’s not just the seaweed diet that poses a problem. Unlike the caribou in Alaska, Svalbard reindeer don’t have to live in fear of predators such as wolves or bears. Now, as they spend more time on the shoreline looking for seaweed to eat, they’re left open to attacks from hungry polar bears who can’t find seals to eat, thanks in large part to less sea ice.