Top Story: December 31, 2013

Climate Change and Caribou

caribou, reindeer, arctic, climate change, habitat, genetic, diversity, markers

By Molly Michelson

Wild caribou (their domesticated brethren go by the reindeer moniker) live in some of the most remote places on the planet—the northern most reaches of Europe, Asia and North America. So it’s no surprise that a recent study determines that climate change will threaten these animals’ future.

However, the recent publication in Nature Climate Change looks not at external factors such as ecosystem and habitat, but at internal factors—genetic markers within the caribou.

A group of international researchers looked deeply within the genetic diversity of the two main populations of caribou—according to the study, “one originating from and confined to Northeastern America, the other originating from Euro-Beringia but also currently distributed in western North America.” They wanted to examine whether genetic diversity was linked to stable habitats.

“When a population loses genetic diversity, they lose the ability to adapt to change,” explains co-author Kris Hundertmark of the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Looking at the markers of over one thousand caribou, the team used climate reconstructions from 21,000 years ago to the present to predict where caribou habitat would likely exist and they matched reservoirs of high genetic diversity to areas with the most stable habitat over time.

Lo-and-behold, the Euro-Beringia population, which faced a much more stable climate over the past millennia, had a higher genetic diversity. The Northeastern America population, which saw a diminishing habitat over the years, also saw a great decline in their genetic diversity.

The team then focused on the future, forecasting caribou habitat to the year 2080 using a ‘business-as-usual’ climate model—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s A1B model. The outcome is grim, especially for the Northeastern American group, with their lower genetic diversity.

The team predicts that as viable caribou habitat shift north, the southernmost herds will disappear and become more threatened with extinction, losing up to 89% of their current habitat.

“The woodland caribou is already an endangered species in southern Canada and the United States,” says another co-author, Marco Musiani of the University of Calgary. “The warming of the planet means the disappearance of their critical habitat in these regions. Caribou need undisturbed lichen-rich environments and these types of habitats are disappearing.”

Caribou in western North America and Eurasia will also be affected, although to a lesser extent, and have a better chance of retaining what remains of genetic diversity and therefore adaptability to change.

Image: Dean Biggins, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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  • mememine69

    30 years of needless CO2 panic is a war crime

    News editors cannot tell our children a crisis WILL happen as the scientific consensus is nothing beyond just “could be” a crisis. Prove us former believers wrong. Find us one IPCC warning that agrees with YOU news editors that it WILL be a crisis.
    And get up to date, you are supposed to be “news”;
    *Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by politicians.
    *Canada killed Y2Kyoto with a freely elected climate change denying prime minister and nobody cared, especially the millions of scientists warning us of unstoppable warming (a comet hit).

  • Pingback: Nailing down climate uncertainty hints at greater future warming – Ars Technica

  • Pingback: Climate Change and Caribou « Life « Science Today | Gaia Tahoe

  • TWils

    Just read the IPCC’s AR% (free online here https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_and_data_reports.shtml#1 ). Climate change IS a crisis. It IS happening. The question is just HOW BAD ARE WE GOING TO LET IT GET? It’s something that many can and will stick their heads in the sand and continue to ignore – and it might not even affect them much in their lifetime. But it will affect children today and their children and grandchildren.

  • TMR

    If we believe that animals morally matter at all, then we already believe in the principles of veganism. We need to consider that animals used as resources today morally matter just as much as this caribou. Doesn’t matter whether they are endangered or not, they equally morally matter and they love life just as much as Caribou do. We also need to consider that 99.99% of our use of animals is for food. (We torture and murder 1 trillion land and aquatic animals per year globally). If we believe it’s wrong to inflict “unnecessary” suffering and death on animals, then what we are doing is wrong, since we can *easily* meet our nutrition needs from plants (and other non-animal sources). I invite people to watch “Earthlings” which can be viewed here http://www.earthlings.com free online. The site may be down at present, but it will be functioning soon. And then after watching Earthlings, please consider going vegan. It’s much easier than you think. Remember that there’s no such thing as non-abusive use of animals. “Free range” “organic” is a scam used to sell more animal products. Please start here with this excellent vegan resource http://www.VeganismIsNonviolence.com/becoming-vegan or http://www.facebook.com/LiveVegan

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