Reindeer populations endangered by climate change – Christmas may depend on adaptation

ReindeerPopulation-JIrvine345Northern reindeer populations are experiencing rapid and significant climate change; the success of future Christmases may depend on how well reindeer can adapt and Santa may need to look for alternative power sources for his sleigh.

A study published in Nature Climate Change, authored by a group of scientists from 22 organisations across the polar regions including the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen and Dundee, has pieced together climate change information over the past 21,000 years and explored how the genetic diversity of the reindeer and caribou populations have varied over time in response to these climate fluctuations.

It has found that the reindeer/caribou populations can be categorised into two distinct populations, one of them based in an area of relatively stable climate, showing high genetic diversity and therefore potential to adapt to future changes.

The second group is in an area of where the climate has fluctuated considerably, and this led to low genetic diversity because of selection of individuals to match the changing conditions. It is therefore less likely to be able to adapt to future change. Svalbard reindeer, the closest population to the North Pole, show low genetic diversity but are experiencing rapid climate change which may affect their long term viability.

Dr Justin Irvine, ecologist at the James Hutton Institute and co-author of the report, said: “A basic condition for the success of any species is that it is adapted to the environment, including the climate, that it finds itself in. The genetic diversity within a species allows a species to adapt and adjust as the environment changes. The climate has always fluctuated and the distribution of species we see today is to some extent a result of how species have adapted to this.

“We are currently in a period of considerable climate change and although we understand that some species may suffer and others benefit from these changes, depending on the situation, we know less about how the genetic diversity within a species may be affected as the climate changes.

“By understanding how past climate has affected genetic diversity we can use the approach developed for this study in other situations to identify the susceptibility of different species to adapt to future climates.”

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