How many reindeer does Santa have

Reindeer in danger: who will soon be pulling Santa's sleigh?

Santa would certainly do well to harness more reindeer to his sleigh than before. Because according to a study, the hardy animals with the impressive antlers are getting smaller and weaker. The reason for this? Probably climate change.

Ecologist Steve Albon from the James Hutton Institute in Scotland and his team have found that adult reindeer on Svalbard born in 2010 weigh 12 percent less than their counterparts born in 1994.

Weight loss probably does not harm the animals themselves - but it does affect reproduction: Pregnant reindeer mothers lose their unborn babies more often, says Steve Albon in an interview with DW. "When you are young and lose weight over the winter, you quickly fall below a threshold below which pregnancy is terminated in order to save your own life."

Even if the fetus does not die, the baby reindeer that is born will have a hard time surviving. "It will be smaller at birth because his mother was in such dire shape during the winter," said Albon, who presented his findings at a meeting of the British Ecological Society last week.

Food abundant but unreachable

One would think that reindeer would find more to eat in a warmer climate - not less. This is actually true from spring to autumn. In winter, however, climate change makes life all the more difficult for animals.

The reindeer are getting smaller on Svalbard

Warmer temperatures bring less snow and instead more rain - and that's the problem! Because snow is powdery and easy to shovel aside. Rain, on the other hand, freezes on the ground and forms a layer of ice up to five centimeters thick, says Albon. "The reindeer can't get through there - not even we humans could get through, we'd need an ax."

As a result, the animals can no longer reach their food; on Svalbard these are mostly grasses and herbs. The reindeer begin to starve. According to Albon, this is not only the case in Svalbard, but in all Arctic island and coastal areas.

Trend: downwards

Steve Albon is currently "not worried" that reindeer are getting smaller on Svalbard, he says. The reindeer population is currently increasing in the Norwegian archipelago, presumably due to the warmer summers. The Yamal Peninsula in Siberia is also suffering from reindeer overpopulation. The local authorities are even considering killing 100,000 animals in order to master the overgrazing.

For other reindeer populations, however, things are not looking so rosy: the number of animals there is decreasing. Eating less in winter could have a dramatic effect on these herds.

Last year - on Christmas Eve of all places - the International Union for Conservation of Nature IUCN upgraded the endangered status of reindeer: from "not endangered" to "endangered". The reason: "Reindeer populations have declined by 40 percent within about 25 years," says Adolf Köhncke, wildlife conservation expert at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

According to the IUCN, the numbers have decreased from 4,800,000 to 2,890,410 animals. This includes not only the reindeer in Europe and Asia, but also the caribou in North America, which belong to the same species, despite different names.

Many reindeer are domesticated

Threatened by global change

In Canada earlier this month, the Committee on the State of Endangered Wildlife (COSEWIC) classified the caribou as "in trouble". "Many of the great northern caribou herds have fallen to record lows and there is concern that they will not recover," said Justina Ray of the Terrestrial Mammals Subcommittee.

A lack of food in winter is just one of the many threats that the charismatic animals face, says Köhncke. "They are a migratory species and therefore particularly susceptible to disturbances." Roads cut their migration routes, and newly built industrial facilities prevent the reindeer mothers from giving birth to their babies in peace.

High up in the north of the Arctic, reindeer also migrate across sea ice to find food elsewhere. When the sea ice disappears due to climate change, their migration routes will also vanish into thin air. US researchers confirmed on Tuesday (December 13, 2016) that this year was a record year: never before has it been so warm in the Arctic and the sea ice cover so low.

Alessia Uboni, now at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala, studied reindeer populations in Europe and Asia. While some of them are still on the increase, they are still very sensitive to environmental changes such as changes in weather and habitat loss. "Reindeer are not only threatened by climate change, but by global change itself," Uboni told DW. "It is difficult to predict which stocks will collapse particularly sharply in the future - but they are all in danger."

Climate change can also bring unexpected events like the anthrax outbreak in Siberia in August, Uboni recalls. A heat wave had thawed a long-ago frozen reindeer carcass in permafrost and released the anthrax pathogen. The disease killed 2,300 reindeer and a 12-year-old boy.

Will there soon be polar bears only in the zoo?

Polar bears are also in danger

But it's not just reindeer who suffer from climate change. Scientists warn that rising temperatures in the Arctic will also cause polar bear populations to shrink by a third in the coming decades. The study by the US Fish and Wildlife Service was presented at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco last week.

Researchers assessed the loss of Arctic sea ice between 1979 and 2015 and calculated how much ice and how many bears will be lost in the coming decades. According to the World Conservation Union, there are currently around 26,000 polar bears. The US researchers are now predicting that the population will shrink by around 8,600 animals in the next 35 to 40 years.

So it's not just Santa Claus who will have to look for reindeer pulling his sleigh more often in the future. The impressive polar bears could also disappear from the earth at some point. And white Christmas has not existed in some regions of the world for a long time.