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The iconic woodland caribou is in serious trouble

Caribou are a beloved Canadian icon that, for generations, have come to represent the wildness of the boreal north and the tundra that stretches across the continent to the Arctic sea.

In fact, we identify with caribou so much that the regal stag, with his elegant, branched crown, has been etched on our quarter (25 cent piece) since the late 1930s and remains to this day.

The striking woodland caribou subspecies that inhabit the expansive island of Newfoundland are native to the province, believed to have arrived around 8,000 years ago by way of an ice bridge.

Woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) are herbivores that can be found throughout Newfoundland in the boreal ecosystem made up of taiga forests and bogs.

Caribou are the only member of the deer family (Cervidae) where the females also grow and shed their antlers annually, albeit they are noticeably smaller and less elaborate than those of the males.

An icon of the northlands, a king amongst his kind, this mature caribou stag exudes confidence as the rut commences at the top of the world.

The size and configuration of a caribou’s rack is influenced by both genetics and nutrition. A mature stag will use his formidable antlers to establish his breeding dominance over smaller males. During the October mating season, the ruling stag will tend his harem of females, discouraging the younger males satelliting around the herd by charging and chasing them with surprising speed and determination. 

The timing of the autumn rut has evolved to ensure that the next generation of caribou is born during springtime, after 230 days of gestation, when the bitter northern woodland winter has retreated. Newborn calves are incredibly precocious, as they’re able to stand and travel with their mother within hours of birth.

Woodland caribou are the largest of the subspecies which exist in North America, with fully grown stags weighing 400lbs (180kg). Their stocky build helps conserve heat during colder months. They also live in smaller groups than their barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus) cousins and have been known to live as long as 15 years.

The windswept landscape of Newfoundland and Labrador suits caribou, which have an incredibly insular hide to protect them from the elements, especially the relentless cold of long winters. They have evolved cloven-hooves that are shaped perfectly to splay wide, like snowshoes, when traversing snowy terrain and have sharp tips for pawing through drifts to reach the lichen that they rely upon for nourishment. Caribou are excellent swimmers and the broad shape of their hooves act like underwater paddles.

A female caribou and her calf rest and chew their cud in the warming morning sun on the open tundra

A fascinating feature of their physiology is that caribou make a clicking sound as they walk—the tendons in their feet snap over sesamoid bones. It’s truly something to hear when a large number are walking past! Biologists believe that it helps them remain together through the poor visibility of coastal fog or a heavy snowfall.

In recent decades the population across the island has declined considerably, from approximately 95,000 animals prior to the year 2000, to only slightly more than 30,000 a decade later. The overall number is estimated to be close to this as of 2018.

A primary belief is that a relative newcomer to the island, coyotes—which are thought to have stemmed from a few animals that crossed an ice bridge over the Gulf of St. Lawrence, from Cape Breton in the mid-1980s—have successfully populated the island, effectively creating a new predator and resulting in significant calf mortality.

Based on my field trips to Newfoundland over the past decades, caribou calves have been a rare sighting. In recent years there seems to be a few more youngsters making it to maturity and there’s a consensus amongst others watching the population, that the caribou population might hopefully be improving. The cause could be lower predator numbers where these groups reside, or perhaps the mothers are adapting to these hunters.

Here’s hoping that this trend continues and that numbers of these marvelous animals rebound, so they once again flourish in the boreal forest and bogs of this magnificent landscape for countless generations to come.

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