Perched on a snow-crusted hill in a glacier-flanked valley known as Reindalen, ecology graduate student Emma Djurberg looks like a modern-day Valkyrie on a quest. Long blond braids frame the scope at her eye as she searches for her target—a shaggy gray creature about the size of a large goat. It’s a Svalbard reindeer, named after the cluster of Norwegian islands it calls home, and Djurberg is waiting for it to poop.
“Reindeer are super-selective eaters,” which their droppings reveal, explains Samantha Dwinnell, a PhD candidate in ecology, who is accompanying Djurberg on this trip to gather data on the unique Svalbard subspecies. The researchers—who include Oline Eikeland, a master’s student in biology, and research assistant Ida Köhn—come from different institutions, but they’re all working on reindeer research at the University Center in Svalbard.
In addition to feces, the group is collecting ancient antlers from the permafrost. Isotope analysis on these branching bones, shed and regrown each year, can reveal important details about past conditions.
The researchers are also doing a status check on 23 specific reindeer with ear tags. That means hours hiking around the valley with an antenna, following signals from a target’s GPS collar. Once they’ve located an animal, they hunt for a spot where it has grazed and painstakingly record the specific plant parts it has nibbled. They’re fascinated by the way the animals somehow know which plants—and which parts of the plants—are most nutritious at different times of the year. In the early summer, for instance, reindeer zero in on just the heads of certain specific flowers, such as a buttercup-type species called Coptidium spitsbergense. Studies show that animals that target the most nutrient-packed food have a higher body mass. “It makes sense,” Dwinnell says. “They’re not wasting their time on crap.”
The researchers, however, are focusing intently on what comes out the other end, and after nearly an hour, the reindeer delivers. The team springs into action, scooping up the specimen. The marble-size droppings are a rich source of information on the animals’ diet and health, such as what they’ve been eating, how stressed they are and whether they’re plagued by parasites. During the week they spend here, the women collect roughly 11 pounds of droppings, which they’ll carry back to the lab for analysis.
The archipelago of Svalbard is halfway between Norway and the North Pole. Its largest island, Spitsbergen, holds the world’s northernmost town of Longyearbyen. The coal-mining town is now home to some 2,300 people, a busy tourism industry and the University Center in Svalbard, a Norwegian Arctic research institute. The scientists (along with Thando the dog) began their three-day journey to Reindalen here, carrying 70-pound packs and rifles to protect themselves from the potential threat of polar bears.
On Day 1, they scaled a glacier in a whiteout, feeling their way carefully to avoid crevasses. They plunged into chopping wood, hauling water and other taxing chores before they could go to sleep in a rickety old hikers’ shelter. Day 2 consisted of a 17-mile slog over cold, wet tundra to another hut, where corny jokes and sour gummies helped keep their spirits up.
On Day 3, after another long hike, they arrived in Reindalen: a lovely, wide-open valley split by a meandering river. Reindalen is a paradise for Svalbard reindeer, also known as Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus. Those “eight tiny reindeer” pulling Santa’s sleigh in the classic poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” must be Svalbard reindeer—they’re the world’s smallest, averaging just three feet tall and five feet long.
Reindalen’s isolated location has largely protected the reindeer from disturbance by humans. And lately, as the rapidly changing climate greens the Arctic, these herbivores are thriving on a heaping smorgasbord of plants. In the fastest-warming part of the planet, the Svalbard reindeer’s relative success is a welcome contrast to the challenges facing many other northern animals. Thanks to extended growing seasons fueling abundant and nutritious vegetation, these reindeer can pack on enough pounds in summer to sustain them through the lean winter, when starvation is a leading cause of death.
As a result, the reindeer population in Reindalen has quadrupled over the past 30 years and now numbers roughly 1,700. Similar benefits are being seen throughout the archipelago, where the total reindeer population—22,000—has doubled since 1989. For the moment, at least, Svalbard reindeer seem to be in their “Goldilocks zone,” where conditions are just right. “These animals are at a stage where things seem to be going well for them,” says Dwinnell. “But it is climate change—and climate change is change.”
As the Arctic continues to warm, even the reindeer will undoubtedly become too hot. Because these animals are adapted to the cold, warmer temperatures require them to regulate their body temperatures, sapping the energy they need to forage for food. And warmer winters can increase rain-on-snow events, which lock away the animals’ food supply under an impenetrable layer of ice. The warming climate can also usher in parasites, invasive species and disease.
“We need to keep an eye on these animals,” Dwinnell says. “We can’t just assume that they’ll be good forever.”
What do the researchers think about while they’re out here, watching reindeer day after day? “You’re in this little bubble, and your life revolves around reindeer and dinner,” Eikeland says. “It’s a very comfortable life, very simple. You don’t have any mirrors. You don’t think about how much your socks smell.”
And they really get to know the animals over time. They have their favorites, like “weird” R380, a loner who hangs out atop glaciers and other unusual places, and “cutie” B255, who loves to cuddle with her calf. “They are so complex and they have so many little quirks,” says Djurberg. “You can really see that they have different personalities.”
That makes the knowledge of what’s ahead for Svalbard reindeer especially heartbreaking. “It’s really hard not to get either depressed or very angry,” says Djurberg, wiping her eye. As the group begins the long trek back to civilization, they’re already eager to return to Reindalen again. “I feel most alive when I am out in the field with these reindeer,” Dwinnell says. “It seems like a harsh environment to be working in, but it really is calming being out there. It really is a magical thing to be a part of.”