The North American caribou, and in particular, the Woodland caribou found in the southern Canadian Rockies and northern America are already an endangered species. Now, there is concern over their specialized habitat disappearing, perhaps forever.
A new study published Dec. 15, in the journal Nature Climate Change, has found that global climate change will adversely effect the habitat of the North American caribou, which have been found to be genetically similar to the reindeer of Asia and Scandinavia.
Co-authored by Marco Musiani, Professor of Environmental Design and Veterinary Medicine at the University of Calgary, the study looked at and compared the DNA of Scandinavian reindeer and the woodland and tundra caribou of North America.
Researchers were interested in comparing how the environments of these animals were affected by climate changes in the past, as well as how those environments will be influenced in the future by climate change.
A large part of the study involved looking at DNA from the two sister groups, and it was found that genetically, the reindeer and caribou are very similar, despite the geographical spread of reindeer and caribou. The two groups occur through Asia, Europe and North America, from Norway to Eastern Canada.
TBjornstad 11:46, 31 October 2006 (UTC)
Map: Distribution of Rangifer tarandus (Caribou/Reindeer)
Red - Reindeer (orange: introduced populations)
Green - Caribou
Professor Musiani was quoted as saying, “The woodland caribou is already an endangered species in southern Canada and the United States. The warming of the planet means the disappearance of critical habitat in these regions."
To reach this conclusion, the study involved going back 21,000 years to look at the geological and environmental history of the reindeer and caribou groups. They found that the North American caribou became isolated just south of the continental ice during and after the last glaciation.
These herds developed their own unique characteristics, apart from the rest of the reindeer populations. At this point-in-time, Europe, Alaska and Asia were connected by a land bridge, and the reindeer in this northern habitat evolved as a group and in a few isolated pockets, separately.
After the meltdown, the northern herds and the caribou of the southern region again reunited and interbred in areas like the southern Canadian Rockies. This is why the study found that caribou in Alaska and northern Canada as well as the caribou of the southern Rockies of Canada and North America were so strikingly similar.
L. David Mech
The Peary caribou is a relatively small and pale subspecies found in the tundra of far northern North America. Unsurprisingly, it is part of the group known as Tundra reindeer.
Of vital concern is the loss of habitat to the woodland caribou across Canada, and including Northern Alberta. These caribou need a specialized habitat, with an undisturbed lichen-rich environment. Global warming has affected the environment of reindeer and caribou worldwide, causing a loss of needed habitat.
In their 2006-2007 annual report, the Office of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, issued a statement, saying, in effect that the woodland caribou was a "sensitive indicator" of the effects on the environment from industrial development in northern Ontario.
The woodland caribou is a species that may soon be extinct because of the loss of habitat. The decline of the boreal forests that make up their range are so threatened, that it is predicted the range will shrink by 89 percent by the year 2070, in what the scientists call a "severe climatic warming scenario."
Joseph N. Hall
Female woodland caribou and calf licking salt from a roadway in British Columbia.