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The Svalbard reindeer

The Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus) is endemic to Svalbard and one of seven sub-species of wild reindeer that inhabit circumpolar arctic and alpine regions (Røed 2005). In Svalbard the reindeer is the largest herbivore and the only resident mammalian herbivorous species with exception of a local introduced population of sibling vole (Microtus levis) (Henttonen, et al. 2001). The Svalbard reindeer has small home-ranges and appear to neither undertake long migrations between summer and winter ranges nor to be nomadic within the seasons like many other wild reindeer populations Tyler and (Øritsland 1989). The size of the e.g. winter home-range depends on the productivity of the vegetation and home-range size decreases with higher availability of preferred habitat suggesting that changes in forage abundance strongly influence the seasonal habitat-space use of the reindeer (Hansen, et al. 2009a; Hansen, et al. 2009b). In winters with local ice-locked pastures reindeer range displacement, induced by food limitations, and foraging in high elevations are strategies observed to cope with food limitations (Hansen, et al. 2010a); (Stien, et al. 2010). The reindeer can undertake partial and seasonal migration by switching between summer and winter ranges where migrants spending the winter on the rich range and subsequent summer on the poor range had improved calving success compared with residents on the poor range (Hansen, et al. 2010b).


The reindeer eat lichens, moss and most of the vascular plants. In summer, the reindeer graze in the lower parts of the terrain like coastal plains and valley bottoms (i.e. meadows communities, mire and marsh communities, swamp and moss tundra, snowbed vegetation and bird cliffs) and in winter they utilize the higher elevations with ridges and more rugged terrain, less exposed to snow-accumulation (i.e. exposed ridges with Dryas octopetala and graminoid communities and alpine meadows) (Staaland 1986).

A pair of grazing Reindeer, seen in Bjørndalen, Svalbard.
Photo: Simen S. Hjelle
A pair of grazing Reindeer, seen in Bjørndalen, Svalbard.
Video: Simen S. Hjelle
Dead reindeer calf found during fieldwork in 2020 (left) and the same spot 1 week later (right).
Photos: Simen S. Hjelle
  1. Henttonen, H., et al. “Echinococcus multilocularis on Svalbard: introduction of an intermediate host has enabled the local life-cycle.” Parasitology 123.6 (2001): 547-552.
  2. Røed, Knut H. “Refugial origin and postglacial colonization of holarctic reindeer and caribou.” Rangifer 25.1 (2005): 19-30.
  3. Staaland H (1986) Svalbardreinens ernæring. In: Øritsland NA (ed) Svalbardreinen og dens livsgrunnlag. Universitetsforlaget, Oslo, pp 72–91 (in Norwegian)
  4. Stien, Audun, et al. “Icing events trigger range displacement in a high‐arctic ungulate.” Ecology 91.3 (2010): 915-920.
  5. Tyler, N. J. C., and N. A. Øritsland. “Why don’t Svalbard reindeer migrate?.” Ecography 12.4 (1989): 369-376.
  6. Hansen, B. B., Aanes, R., Herfindal, I., Sæther, B. E., & Henriksen, S. (2009a). Winter habitat–space use in a large arctic herbivore facing contrasting forage abundance. Polar Biology32, 971-984.
  7. Hansen, Brage Bremset, Ronny Aanes, and Bernt-Erik Sæther. “Feeding-crater selection by high-arctic reindeer facing ice-blocked pastures.” Canadian Journal of Zoology 88.2 (2010a): 170-177.
  8. Hansen, B. B., Aanes, R., & Sæther, B. E. (2010b). Partial seasonal migration in high-arctic Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus). Canadian Journal of Zoology88(12), 1202-1209.
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