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Reindeer populations endangered by climate change

Reindeer in the snow © James Hutton Institute
By understanding how past climate has affected genetic diversity we can use the approach developed for this study in other situations to identify the susceptibility of different species to adapt to future climates.

Northern reindeer populations are experiencing rapid and significant climate change; the success of future Christmases may depend on how well reindeer can adapt and Santa may need to look for alternative power sources for his sleigh.

A study published in Nature Climate Change, authored by a group of scientists from 22 organisations across the polar regions including the James Hutton Institute, has pieced together climate change information over the past 21,000 years and explored how the genetic diversity of the reindeer and caribou populations have varied over time in response to these climate fluctuations.

It has found that the reindeer/caribou populations can be categorised into two distinct populations, one of them based in an area of relatively stable climate, showing high genetic diversity and therefore potential to adapt to future changes.

The second group is in an area of where the climate has fluctuated considerably, and this led to low genetic diversity because of selection of individuals to match the changing conditions. It is therefore less likely to be able to adapt to future change. Svalbard reindeer, the closest population to the North Pole, show low genetic diversity but are experiencing rapid climate change which may affect their long term viability.

Dr Justin Irvine, ecologist at the James Hutton Institute and co-author of the report, said: “A basic condition for the success of any species is that it is adapted to the environment, including the climate, that it finds itself in. The genetic diversity within a species allows a species to adapt and adjust as the environment changes. The climate has always fluctuated and the distribution of species we see today is to some extent a result of how species have adapted to this.

“We are currently in a period of considerable climate change and although we understand that some species may suffer and others benefit from these changes, depending on the situation, we know less about how the genetic diversity within a species may be affected as the climate changes.

“By understanding how past climate has affected genetic diversity we can use the approach developed for this study in other situations to identify the susceptibility of different species to adapt to future climates.”

The study “Genetic diversity in caribou linked to past and future climate change” was published by the journal Nature Climate Change.

Notes to editors

Dr Justin Irvine is an ecologist at the James Hutton Institute. His research has focused on understanding the mechanisms governing the population regulation in free ranging herbivores with an emphasis on the role that disease plays in the dynamics of these ecosystems. His current work deals with the relative impacts of wild and domestic herbivores on the biodiversity and conservation of upland in the light of climate and land-use change.

Paper: Genetic diversity in caribou linked to past and future climate change, by researchers Glenn Yannic, Loïc Pellissier, Joaquín Ortego, Nicolas Lecomte, Serge Couturier, Christine Cuyler, Christian Dussault, Kris J. Hundertmark, R. Justin Irvine, Deborah A. Jenkins, Leonid Kolpashikov, Karen Mager, Marco Musiani, Katherine L. Parker, Knut H. Røed, Taras Sipko, Skarphéðinn G. Þórisson, Byron V. Weckworth, Antoine Guisan, Louis Bernatchez and Steeve D. Côté, was published in Nature Climate Change.

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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.