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Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Scientists writing in the journal Nature Climate Change say that climate change is endangering global reindeer and caribou habitats.
The new study suggests there are a lot of similarities between reindeer, which thrive in Northern Europe and Asia, and caribou, which live in North America. Not only does this new research show similarities between these two animals that were previously unknown, but it also sheds light on how climate change has played a role in their evolution.
Researchers looked at the DNA of reindeer in Scandinavia and Asia as well as tundra and woodland caribou in North America to find out more about how their environments were affected in the past and will be influenced in the future by climate change.
Marco Musiani of the University of Calgary said that as one of the most northern species, caribou feel the effects of global warming as climate change continues to take its toll.
“The woodland caribou is already an endangered species in southern Canada and the United States. The warming of the planet means the disappearance of their critical habitat in these regions. Caribou need undisturbed lichen-rich environments and these types of habitats are disappearing,” stated Musiani, a professor on the faculties of Environmental Design and Veterinary Medicine and co-author of the study.
Musiani added that the research demonstrates the animals are not as different from a genetic point of view as some might think given the geographic spread of reindeer and caribou. The two sister groups can be found throughout Europe, Asia and North America, from Norway to Eastern Canada.
The team said that caribou living in North America, but just south of the continental ice, became isolated and evolved their unique characteristics during the last glaciation. During this time, Europe, Asia and Alaska were connected by a land bridge.
“Then, at meltdown the two groups, reindeer from the North and caribou from the South, reunited and interbred in areas previously glaciated such as the southern Canadian Rockies,” says Musiani.
The team looked at how the animals were distributed over 21,000 years as the climate changed and found that the caribou in Alaska and northern Canada are strikingly similar to reindeer. The more typical North American caribou occur further south in the lowland forested regions.
“Animals more closely related to reindeer occur in North America, throughout its northern and western regions, with some transitional zones, such as the one remarkably placed in the southern Canadian Rockies,” said Musiani.