Reindeer have a circumpolar distribution, with seven subspecies occupying different regions. The Svalbard reindeer is a small subspecies of Rangifer tarandus. The Svalbard reindeer is endemic to Svalbard. Reindeer are found in almost all non-glaciated areas of the Archipelago. The highest densities are found in Nordenskiöld Land, Edgeøya and Barentsøya.
The Svalbard reindeer is a small subspecies of Rangifer tarandus. Males are bigger than females and have larger antlers. The body mass of males is approximately 65 kg in spring and 90 kg in autumn, while female body mass is approximately 53 kg in spring and 70 kg in autumn. The approximate length of males and females are 160 cm and 150 cm, respectively.
The Svalbard reindeer is short-legged and has a relatively small, rounded head. The fur is brown on the back and light on the belly and varies between the seasons.
In winter the fur is lighter in colour than in summer, often appearing light grey or yellow-white. The thickness of the coat contributes to the short-legged appearance and makes even starved animals appear fat in the winter.
The males develop large antlers during the period from April to July and shed the velvet during August-September. Males lose their antlers in early winter. Females develop antlers starting in June and they are usually retained for a whole year.
Reindeer have a circumpolar distribution, with seven subspecies occupying different regions. The Svalbard reindeer is endemic to Svalbard. Reindeer are found in almost all non-glaciated areas of the Archipelago. The highest densities are found in Nordenskiöld Land, Edgeøya and Barentsøya. In 1978 fifteen animals were reintroduced to Brøggerhalvøya. This population grew exponentially to 360 individuals by 1993 and subsequently declined to below 100 individuals during the winter of 1993/94 because of extreme winter conditions that lead to thick ground ice. The decline was due to a combination of high mortality and migration to other areas.
The Svalbard reindeer has a varied diet and eats almost all types of vegetation with a few exceptions (such as arctic white-heather). In winter the reindeer feed along ridges, mountain slopes, plateaus and other areas where little snow accumulation occurs. In summer they feed on lush vegetation where ever it is available, particularly in valleys and lowland plains and they spend most of their time feeding to accumulate fat. The fat reserves are used during winter when vegetation is of lower quality and access to it is limited.
The Svalbard reindeer often occurs in small groups of three to five individuals, except during the rut in late autumn when males gather harems and in winters with ice-locked pastures when animals can gather in larger groups on good feeding grounds.
The Svalbard reindeer is adapted to survive the variable climatic conditions and the high degree of seasonality in Svalbard. They are very sedentary and thus have low energy demands, and they have an outstanding ability to use their own body reserves (both fat and muscle tissue) when access to food is limited in the winter. The thick fur contributes to insulation against low temperatures and wind.
Starvation is the most common cause of mortality. This occurs due to worn out teeth from grazing on sparse vegetation among stones and gravel or due to lack of food when ice locks pastures – caused by ‘rain-on-snow’ events in winter.
The population dynamics of the Svalbard reindeer is regulated by a combination of density dependent processes and climatic variability causing high mortality and low reproduction.
Life history and reproduction
Svalbard reindeer mate in October and during the rut the males gather up to ten females in a harem. Female reindeer are pregnant for about seven months and give birth to the single calf in June. The calf suckles for about three months, growing rapidly during this time.
The body mass of the calf at birth is about three kilogrammes and the calf gains seven to eight kilogrammes per month during their first summer.
The females normally start to reproduce at age three, but when conditions are favourable they can have their first calf at two years of age.
The expected lifespan of a Svalbard reindeer is about ten years, but the oldest animal recorded is 17 years of age. The variable climatic conditions in Svalbard result in high year-to-year variation in survival and reproductive rates. For example, the proportion of mature females that give birth to a calf in a given summer can vary from 10 to 90%.
Management status and monitoring
The Svalbard reindeer was harvested heavily in Svalbard from 1860 to 1925, and the population was dramatically reduced. The harvest was banned, except for scientific sampling, between 1925 and 1983. This period of protection resulted in recovery of the reindeer and the reindeer spread and re-colonized their former ranges.
There has been no recent effort to census the whole archipelago yet, so the total current population size is not known. However, data from many parts of the archipelago and long-term monitoring data from a few specific locations, suggest an increase in the number of Svalbard reindeer during recent decades. Annual monitoring of the reindeer population in Adventdalen (1979–2013) has shown that the population size varies between 400 to 1200 individuals. Similar numbers and population dynamics has also been documented in the adjacent valley of Reindalen.
In Nordenskiöld Land a quota-based harvest conducted by residents takes place each year (15 August – 20 September) in six designated areas. This harvest is believed to have only minor impacts on the reindeer populations in the area and is managed to be sustainable in the long term.