Are Reindeer And Caribou The Same Thing? New Study Says They Are Lost Cousins, Driven In Different Directions By The Ice Age
In North America, reindeer are called "caribou." But can the name reindeer be used interchangeably with caribou? A recent genetic mapping published in Nature Climate Change of the Rangifer tarandus (AKA caribou and reindeer) shows the migration pattern of these mammals in North America over the last 21,000 years, and claims that they are actually different animals — but closely related cousins. The last ice age drove caribou herds further south to stable habitats between the glaciers, leaving them decimated and unable to mate with caribou in other refuges, as evident in a genetic signature in the modern mammals..
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However, the isolated populations had the chance to interbreed when the ice melted and a fresh wave of reindeer, long lost relatives of the caribou, crossed over from Eurasia. Caribou and Eurasian reindeer belong to the same species, according to biologists. The Sami and other cultures have, for centuries, used the reindeer in Europe to pull snow-sleds.
In other words, the research has found great similarities, previously unknown, between North American caribou and Eurasian reindeer while shedding light on the role of climate change in their ongoing evolution. The scientists did an in-depth DNA analysis of Eurasian reindeer and North American tundra and woodland caribou to study past environmental impacts and future climate change.
During the last glaciation (when Europe, Asia, and Alaska disconnected) caribou living in North America became isolated and developed some unique characteristic features. The current studies show that geographically dispersed caribou and reindeer are genetically related. However, their interbreeding ability and genetic diversity were reduced as the caribou community splintered.
The loss in genetic diversity is accompanied by the loss in ability to adapt to change, according to Kris Hundertmark, study co-author and wildlife biologist-geneticist, as s consequence of which they are threatened. Therefore, it is critical to learn about the areas that will have the maximum habitat stability in future, according to Kris Hundertmark.
Global warming, according to Marco Musiani of the University of Calgary and co-author of the study, is a huge threat to caribou. In southern Canada and the United States, woodland caribou are already considered endangered, and are facing the disappearance of their critical habitat with the warming of the planet. They need an undisturbed environment rich in lichen, which is disappearing, according to Musiani.
Photo above courtesy of Shutterstock.
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