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HomeSpits­ber­gen infor­ma­ti­onWild­life → Sval­bard reinde­er

Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus)

Svalbard reindeer, Blomstrandhalvøya

Sval­bard reinde­er (bull). Blom­strand­hal­vøya, mid Sep­tem­ber.

Descrip­ti­on: The Sval­bard reinde­er (or Spits­ber­gen reinde­er) is the only reinde­er spe­ci­es in Sval­bard. It is a uni­que, rela­tively small sub­spe­ci­es. Both sexes have ant­lers, but tho­se of the males are big­ger. Male reinde­er grow their ant­lers from April to July, shed the bast in August and Sep­tem­ber and final­ly the ant­lers in late autumn, after the bree­ding sea­son. Fema­les get their ant­lers in June and car­ry them until spring next year.

Fema­les: Weight 53 kg in spring, 70 kg in autumn. Length 1.50 met­res.
Males: Weight 65 kg in spring, 90 kg in autumn. Length 1.60 met­res.

Spitsbergen reindeer, Alkhornet

Sval­bard reinde­er: cow and calf. Alk­hor­net, ear­ly August.

In con­trast to Scan­di­na­via whe­re semi-wild reinde­er stay tog­e­ther in lar­ge herds, you will see eit­her sin­gle ani­mals or small groups in Sval­bard. Herds of more than 20 ani­mals are excep­tio­nal. Sval­bard reinde­er are not dome­sti­ca­ted and do not belong to any­bo­dy.

Svalbard reindeer: strong bull. Hornsund

Sval­bard reinde­er: strong male. Horn­sund, late August.

Dis­tri­bu­ti­on / Migra­ti­on: Reinde­er occur ever­y­whe­re in the Arc­tic, but the sub­spe­ci­es “Sval­bard reinde­er” is ende­mic to Sval­bard. They were dri­ven near to extinc­tion in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry due to exten­si­ve hun­ting, but have reco­ver­ed well and can now be found in most parts of the archi­pe­la­go, alt­hough man has hel­ped on some occa­si­ons by moving small stocks within Spits­ber­gen to sui­ta­ble are­as. The­re are even some reinde­er che­wing on the very meag­re vege­ta­ti­on in the polar deserts on Nord­aus­t­land, but they do not occur on the remo­test islands of Storøya, Kvi­tøya, Hopen and Bjørnøya. Hig­hest popu­la­ti­on den­si­ties occur in are­as with rich tun­dra vege­ta­ti­on, main­ly Nor­dens­ki­öld Land and the lar­ge islands of Edgeøya and Barent­søya. Within the­se are­as, they do not show a very pro­no­un­ced sea­so­nal migra­ti­on pat­tern, as win­ter and sum­mer fee­ding grounds are within the same regi­ons. Reinde­er walk across fjord ice and gla­ciers to move around.

During the late spring in 2011, about 1000 reinde­er were coun­ted in Advent­da­len, which gives an avera­ge den­si­ty of about 6 ani­mals per squa­re kilo­met­re, three times more than in Finn­mark (north Nor­way). Con­ti­nuous coun­ting star­ted in 1979 in this area, and the avera­ge from the begin­ning to 1995 was 650 ani­mals. The recent increase is explai­ned with the chan­ging cli­ma­te by the the respon­si­ble bio­lo­gist, Nicho­las Tyler.

Svalbard reindeer, winter, Sassendalen

Sval­bard reinde­er on bar­ren win­ter tun­dra. Sas­send­a­len, mid April.

Bio­lo­gy: Sval­bard reinde­er will eat almost any­thing that has roots and lea­ves, with a few excep­ti­ons such as Arc­tic bell-hea­ther (Cas­sio­pe tetra­go­na). During the sum­mer, they spend most of the time fee­ding to accu­mu­la­te a thick lay­er of fat, which is their main ener­gy source for the win­ter when food avai­la­bi­li­ty is low. Reinde­er spend the win­ter in places whe­re the snow has been blown away by the wind, to have access to some vege­ta­ti­on, often at some alti­tu­de. Late win­ter and spring are the most dif­fi­cult time of the year, when the tun­dra is still hid­den under snow and their fat reser­ves are used up. Espe­ci­al­ly when peri­ods of thaw are fol­lo­wed by frost and ever­y­thing is cover­ed with an impene­tra­ble lay­er of hard ice, reinde­er are faced with dif­fi­cult times. Star­va­ti­on during such peri­ods and when the tee­th are worn down after about ten years are the main cau­ses of death. Few reinde­er die during the rich sum­mer sea­son. Mating is in Octo­ber.

During this time, strong bulls will defend a harem of up to ten cows. During the fol­lo­wing ear­ly sum­mer, around June, a sin­gle calf will be born. The pro­por­ti­on of fema­les that give birth varies stron­gly from ten per­cent in dif­fi­cult years up to 90 per­cent in good times. The­re are accor­din­gly very pro­no­un­ced fluc­tua­tions of the popu­la­ti­on size.

Mis­cel­la­neous: The size of the total popu­la­ti­on is esti­ma­ted to be around 10,000 ani­mals, the­reof about 4,000 in Nor­dens­ki­öld Land, but varies from year to year. Reinde­er have been pro­tec­ted in Sval­bard sin­ce 1925, but limi­t­ed hun­ting has been intro­du­ced for locals in 1983 in desi­gna­ted are­as in Nor­dens­ki­öld Land. The hun­ting sea­son is in Sep­tem­ber and it is assu­med that hun­ting does not affect the popu­la­ti­on. In 2006, 296 per­mits were issued, but only 178 reinde­er were shot.

Reindeer and tourists

Tou­rists and reinde­er in Kongsfjord.

Despi­te hun­ting, reinde­er can be very curious and some­ti­mes approach groups of tou­rists to a distance of within ten met­res. They spend most of the day wal­king slow­ly over the tun­dra, fee­ding per­ma­nent­ly, and do not pay any atten­ti­on to humans to begin with. Then, they are typi­cal­ly unde­ci­ded bet­ween run­ning away and coming clo­ser. Snow mobi­les can pose serious strain on reinde­er during the most dif­fi­cult sea­son, when they need to save ener­gy. Pay atten­ti­on to this and give reinde­er the right of way. During the sum­mer, you will often find reinde­er hair on the tun­dra. Wishful thin­king sug­gests that this is Polar bear fur, but the distinc­tion is easy: Reinde­er fur is much coar­ser, but breaks easi­ly, whe­re­as the finer Polar bear hairs are much thin­ner and stron­ger.

Reindeer, Longyearbyen

Reinde­er in Lon­gye­ar­by­en, mid April.

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last modification: 2019-03-14 · copyright: Rolf Stange
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