Reindeer are thriving in East Iceland • Earth.com

Today’s Image of the Day from NASA Earth Observatory features Iceland, where a population of wild reindeer has grown rapidly in recent decades. In particular, reindeer have thrived in an area of East Iceland that has an abundance of a key type of lichen (Cetraria islandica) for herds to consume. 

According to NASA, reindeer were first brought by royal decree from Norway to Iceland in the 1700s after diseases had killed about 60 percent of the island’s sheep population. 

The initial plan was to domesticate the animals and raise them on farms. However, the plan was unsuccessful due to a number of factors, including harsh winters and a lack of interest in raising the reindeer.

NASA reports that the population swelled from a few dozen reindeer in the 1700s to more than 5,000 today. Many spend the summer foraging in the highlands near Mount Snæfell, descending into the warmer valleys in the winter. 

In East Iceland, reindeer do not have any natural predators, parasitic flies, or mosquitoes to slow population growth. Hunters are permitted to kill about 1,000 – 1,300 reindeer each year.

“To prevent overgrazing, we keep the density of winter populations under one animal per square kilometer,” explained Skarphéðinn Þórisson of the East Iceland Nature Centre. “Most of the overgrazing that happens in Iceland is related to sheep farming – not reindeer – and happens mainly in areas other than East Iceland.”

The image was captured on August 14, 2020 by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite.

Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory 

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

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