Reindriftsforvaltningen Nordforsk

Reindeer health research

Reindeer, also known as caribou in northern America (Rangifer tarandus, Linnaeus 1758), are mammals belonging to the order Artiodactyla, family Cervidae, subfamily Capreolinae. From nine original main subspecies, seven still exits. The total number of reindeer is difficult to assess but is estimated at five to six million. While reindeer as a species is not endangered, some subspecies and populations are now protected because of reduced population size and/or changes in natural habitats. In North America, two subspecies Peary (R. t. pearyi) and woodland (R. t. caribou) are listed as threatened and recent, widespread, and massive declines of barrenground caribou (R. t. groenlandicus) have raised concerns about this species globally. More than 750 000 animals are found in the northern Europe (Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Greenland) comprising 5 subspecies and some protected populations as the wild reindeer in southern Norway or the Forest reindeer in southern Finland. Most of these animals are herded by the local indigenous populations representing an important cultural, economic and social asset for these Arctic populations.

Geographical distribution of different subspecies of reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) in the Northern hemisphere. A - Eurasian tundra reindeer also known as mountain reindeer (R. t. tarandus); B - Eurasian forest reindeer (R .t. fennicus); C – Svalbard reindeer (R. t. platyrhynchus); D – Peary caribou (R. t. pearyi); E – Barren-ground caribou (R. t. groenlandicus); F – Woodland caribou (R. t. caribou); G – Grant’s caribou also known as Porcupine or Alaskan caribou (R. t. granti). D/E represents areas shared by Peary and Barren-ground caribou. © Carlos G. das Neves

Reindeer mortality is often linked to predation; however, many studies carried out in the last 20-30 years have identified several different health problems affecting reindeer in all northern European countries. Viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites have been identified as causative agents of diseases with a vast range of clinical signs and implications for reindeer survival and husbandry. At the same time, studies on reproduction, calving, and nutrition have helped to understand this important arctic species and its capability to survive in what can easily be considered as one of the most extreme habitats of the planet.

The lack of structured long term cooperation in studies related to reindeer health has meant that different countries have worked on individual health problems according to national relevance, many times on the follow-up of disease outbreaks. This has lead to individual research groups specializing in given pathogens, with this knowledge having little impact for neighboring countries. Nonetheless in the last 10 years studies have been carried out identifying important pathogens for reindeer. Some examples include: the isolation of a parapoxvirus in Norway, shown to cause contagious echtyma (a zoonotic disease)in reindeer and muskoxen; isolation of cervid herpesvirus 2 in Norway and Finland, an agent now associated to infectious keratoconjunctivitis; description of the vectors of Setaria tundra, a parasite associated to severe disease outbreaks in Finland. Studies on nutrition, supplementary feeding, patterns of survival and reproduction among others have also increased our knowledge on reindeer physiology and reproductive success.

A rare example of Scandinavian cooperative project on reindeer health is the IKC project on infectious keratoconjunctivitis including Norway, Finland and Sweden launched in 2010. Nonetheless most other diseases affecting reindeer are mostly studies at local level without proper networking.

There is recent evidence documenting the range expansion of pathogens of domestic and free-ranging ungulates to subarctic areas. The potential impacts of global warming are predicted to include shifts in the spatial-temporal distribution of vectors, and hence altering transmission dynamics of vector-borne diseases. Bluetongue is a good example of vector borne disease spatial expansion, having already reached southern Scandinavia but with unknown future impacts for the wild reindeer populations of southern Norway or forest reindeer in southern Finland. One can therefore state that few studies have yet been carried out on emerging diseases in reindeer in Europe.

Regarding training on reindeer health, Europe continues to lack an organized education for veterinary/biology students for this important arctic species. Graduate curriculums on veterinary education institutions in Scandinavia include little education on reindeer / reindeer health problems. As interest on the impact of climate change and anthropological-driven ecological disturbances in the Arctic increases, problems related to reindeer are becoming the focus of attention, but most students starting master/doctoral programs will have almost no specific training/knowledge on health related problems. Nonetheless in all countries there has been an effort to “produce” graduate students working on reindeer health topics (3 PhDs in 2009 on reindeer health issues). In North America, the (CircumArctic Rangifer Monitoring Assessment network - CARMA) has included, among other goals, studies of health related issues and this has contributed to a better organization and networking of graduate students mostly in Canada and the US. Such type of cooperation does not yet exist in Europe area and no specific courses, training workshops exist for graduate students working in reindeer health projects.

SEMINAR: Reindeer husbandry as a resource for the society

Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU)
Uppsala - SWEDEN
3-4 December 2012
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SEMINAR: Animal Welfare in reindeer husbandry

Norwegian School of Veterinary Science (NVH)
13th December 2012
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