Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) and caribou are linked intimately with nomadic herding cultures within taiga and tundra ecosystems in the northern hemisphere, generally north of the 50th parallel, and these animals migrate extensively within this range. There are over 2 million domesticated reindeer currently maintained by Norwegian, Swedish, Russian/Siberian, and Mongolian indigenous peoples, as well as numerous tribes in northern North America that rely on caribou for their subsistence.
Reindeer and caribou remains, unearthed from human prehistoric camps and dated at 9,000 to 16,000 BCE, indicate reindeer provided food and fiber for indigenous cultures and that domestication of reindeer for use as food (milk and meat), fiber, transportation, and pack animals occurred at least 3,000 years ago. In north central Mongolia, petroglyphs (stone etchings) of reindeer and herders dated at approximately 3,000 years old reveal that reindeer herding cultures resided in southern Siberia and northern Mongolia for millennia, though these animals were hunted prior to domestication for hundreds of thousands of years.
The Mongolian Tsaatan (people of the deer) reindeer herding community historically migrated to and from northern Mongolia and southern Siberia. In the early 1900s Mongolian reindeer herders were isolated from their historical migratory routes when the Mongolia-Siberia border was closed at the time the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party was established.
The Tsaatan, a semi-nomadic reindeer herding culture, migrate solely
in this smaller taiga ecosystem within Mongolian borders. This group is
the southern-most reindeer-herding community in the world. The
environment of the Tsaatan may be altered by climatic shifts, with
subsequent landscape changes and disease emergence.
IMPACTS TO THE MONGOLIAN TAIGA ECOSYSTEM
Challenges to the Mongolian reindeer population include availability
of consistent veterinary care in the remote taiga region, influx of
miners, hunters, and loggers eroding the fragile taiga ecosystem, and
emergence of infectious pathogens such as Lyme disease and brucellosis
in the reindeer. The far northern ecosystems have been experiencing
warming climatic trends in the past two decades, with global warming
linked to calf mortality in caribou. The increasing temperatures and
changes in the length and intensity of these climatic shifts in arctic
and subarctic regions may generate a cascade of events with subsequent
impacts on reindeer health, forage availability, and diversity,
abundance, and density of tick and reservoir host populations, that may
contribute to emergence of tick-transmitted pathogens.
HEALTH CONCERNS OF MONGOLIAN REINDEER
Reindeer in Mongolia are compromised in health, with low body condition scores, musculo-skeletal problems that include lameness and joint effusions, and problems with effective reproduction in the herds that may be attributed to tick-borne diseases and brucellosis.
Contributions to these health concerns likely include genetic,
nutritional, and infectious factors. One important aspect of Mongolian
reindeer health that has received minimal attention is infectious
disease. For my PhD, I reported the first identification of a suite of
three tick-borne pathogens in Mongolian reindeer. Identifying the tick
species and reservoir host mammals that transmit the pathogens
documented in my PhD research, and researching brucellosis in these
animals, is the focus of the post-doctoral work generously funded by
the Morris Foundation, and is the next step in elucidating disease
transmission cycles in this isolated, unique taiga ecosystem.
REINDEER FUN FACTS
Watch a video about Mongolian reindeer from NBC: