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No big feast for Norwegian reindeer, instead they eat moss

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Reindeer games

Take a bit of time today to give thanks for the many blessings in your life with your family and friends.

As you sit down to a big turkey dinner with gravy, mashed potatoes and stuffing, think about the small reindeer living on the Svalbard Islands in the Arctic Ocean near Norway. Their home is so snowy they survive on a meal of moss.

This area of the world is one of the fastest warming, with hotter summers and more moisture falling as rain instead of snow. In the past, having any rainfall could be dangerous. The rain would freeze into ice, making it difficult for reindeer to reach their mossy meals.

On one island in this region, however, researchers have discovered that the change in weather has led to a switch in what the animals are eating. New grasses are growing. Now when ice forms, the blades of grass sometimes stick up, allowing the animals to still find food.

The scientists see this as a hopeful sign that as the climate changes other plants may grow and help reindeer survive.

The Svalbard reindeer are the smallest members of the reindeer family, weighing about 116 pounds for small females to 198 pounds for big males. Their legs are fairly short, which explains why they get no taller than about 3 feet at the shoulder. On average they live about 10 years.

Other reindeer species include Finland’s forest reindeer and the mountain reindeer of the arctic tundra.

In 2019 scientists counted 22,000 Svalbard reindeer by trekking across the islands. That’s encouraging because the animals were almost killed off by hunters in the early 1900s. In 1925 the government of Norway decided to protect them.

Reindeer have been on the islands for at least 3,600 years, based on dating of old antlers scientists found and tested.

— Brett French, french@billingsgazette.com

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