That plump and jolly man has had it good for centuries, relying on his trusty team of reindeer to carry him across the world to deliver presents for all the good boy and girls -- but soon Santa Claus may find getting around a bit more difficult. According to one conservation scientist, reindeer (or caribou, as they're known in North America) are in a precarious state of decline due to the habitat loss driven by global warming and development.
Sorry Rudolph, you might not be able to save the day this time -- unless, of course, you've got a bike to lend.In keeping with the stereotype, reindeer really do love cold climates -- and they're equipped to handle the chill like few other animals are. Jeff Wells, an ecologist and visiting fellow at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, describes the unique features reindeer have acquired for their northern habitats, or rather, as they once were.
"They have hooves that allow them to easily walk on snow and ice, unlike deer and moose," says Wells. "Their hollow hairs give them extra insulation from the extreme cold and allow them to easily float when swimming across rivers and lakes."
He mentions nothing about flying, but we'll assume that was a given.
For as hardy as these animals are, however, in the last hundred years they've been forced to leave their natural habitats, which once stretched across Canada and the northern United States. PhysOrg reports on the troubling trend:
By the early 1900s, caribou disappeared from the U.S. side of the Great Lakes and most of the Rocky Mountains, Wells said. In Ontario, the species range has retracted at a rate of two miles a year, resulting in the loss of half of the province's woodland caribou range; 60 percent has been lost in Alberta, and 40 percent in British Columbia. More recently, massive declines in the numbers of the barren-ground, long-distance migratory caribou have been recorded, some herds dropping by as much as 90 percent. Wells attributes much of the decline in caribou populations to industrial development, but many scientists also point to global warming as a culprit.
Unfortunately, Santa Claus isn't the only one who should be concerned about the decline in numbers for reindeer. Indigenous peoples, Wells points out, have been living sustainably with the animals for generations -- in fact, they've become an important part of their culture. Setting aside land, particularly in the Canadian boreal, may be the best solution to ensure a healthy population exists in the years to come for future generations to marvel over.
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