North Pole's Reindeer Population Plummets
Flickr User Kint via Creative Commons
Dec. 24, 2012 --
When all of the other reindeer used to laugh and call Rudolph names, like Pinocchio, he had to take their abuse and accept being excluded from their reindeer games, like Monopoly. What if Rudolph with his nose-so-bright refused to guide Santa's sleigh in retaliation for the abuse he had faced from dull-nosed reindeer? Would another reindeer be able to fill in for Rudolph? After all, he isn't the only red-nosed reindeer. Certain reindeer in the Norwegian Arctic have naturally pink noses. Reindeer noses have 25 percent more capillaries than the human nose, according to a recent study published in the journal BMJ. The reddish coloration of the animals noses results from the high concentration of blood vessels. The red-nosed reindeer lacked one important feature. Their noses, although useful in regulating body heat, were unable to glow. A Rudolph rebellion could indeed cancel Christmas for Santa unless he can find a truly illuminating animal. Santa will need to check out the resumes of some other glowing creatures.
ANALYSIS: Why Some Reindeer Have Red Noses
"Tegon" is a puppy genetically engineered to
Dogs do a good job hauling sleds around in the Arctic, so they already have on the job experience. However, dogs don't naturally shine. Recently though, a genetically modified beagle was designed to glow. A gene from the jellyfish species Aequorea victoria that causes them to glow, or fluoresce, under ultraviolet light was inserted into the the beagle. In further studies, the genetically modified mutts could have disease-causing genes inserted along with the glowing genes. That would allow scientists to know which dogs had picked up the disease causing genes by shining a UV light on the animals. "The dog has 268 genetic type diseases that are similar to those of humans," study co-author ByeongChun Lee told Discovery News’ Jennifer Viegas. "Also, the dog has physiological and anatomical similarities with humans. These reasons make them a good model for human disease." The only problem is the bright-bodied beagle, named Tegon, is adorable. If Santa’s sleigh was pulled by a frisky little beagle, too many kids would want to keep the pup as a present. Plus the dog might raid Santa’s cookies and milk.
NEWS: Genetically Modified Beagle Glows
A glowing kitten next to a normal cat. (Mayo
If Santa doesn't want to monkey around with glowing simians, perhaps he can use the fluorescent felines created by Mayo Clinic researchers to help in the fight against HIV-AIDS. The cats were genetically engineered to carry a protein that defends them from infection by the feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), the cat version of HIV. The cats glow because of the jellyfish gene was inserted along with the FIV-resistance gene. If the genetically modified mouser glowed an eerie green, the researchers knew it was also resistant to FIV. "One of the best things about this biomedical research is that it is aimed at benefiting both human and feline health," said Eric Poeschla, lead author of the study published in Nature Methods, in a press release. "It can help cats as much as people.” Santa would have a ready supply of milk for the cats, what with all the cookies and milk left for him. Unfortunately, cats have proven remarkably difficult to herd. Getting them to pull a sleigh would be too much of a challenge for Santa’s elves. Glowing cats are better fit for Halloween anyway.
If brilliant beagles and fluorescent felines were too cute, perhaps Santa would be better off with an animal few kids want to cuddle. Glowing roaches could guide the sleigh and would have no trouble getting down the chimney. No luck here though, the incandescent insects’ lights may have been snuffed out permanently by a volcano. The roach was only known from a single specimen collected more than 70 years ago in Ecuador. Since then an eruption of the Tungurahua volcano may have wiped out the only known habitat for the insect. Oh well, Mrs. Claus probably wouldn’t have liked Santa bringing roaches around the house, anyway.
ANALYSIS: Volcano Vaporizes Cool Glowing Roach
Japanese Firefly Squid (
If Santa’s looking for an animal that is both unappealing as a pet and hasn’t been obliterated off the face of the planet by molten magma, perhaps a squid would do swimmingly. Numerous species of squid and octopi can change their colors for camouflage or communication. Some squid live at the very bottom of the sea, where very little of the sun's light reaches. In the inky depths, the creatures produce their own light for a variety of reasons, including attracting prey and communicating. Jules Verne and Peter Benchley may have given squid a naughty reputation, but some squid have been observed tenderly caring for their unhatched eggs. The nurturing instincts of the squid mothers fit with Santa's style and having all those tentacles could help with wrapping presents and other holiday chores. The glowing squid shown here, Watasenia scintillans, has special organs called photophores that allow it to light up. Plus, this species is edible. So, in a pinch, Santa could stuff a stocking with calamari. The problem is, they simply can't survive outside of the water, much less at the high altitudes reached by Santa's sleigh.
PHOTOS: Squid, Glowing Bacteria Work Well Together
Whale Shark with fluorescent spots. (Stuart W
While the elves have their diving gear on to wrangle squid, they may as well pick up a few glowing sharks. The largest of fish, the whale shark, has spots on its back that shine brightly in the sunlight. Every whale shark has a different pattern of spots, which ichthyologists use to identify individuals. Santa wouldn't have any trouble telling the sharks apart, and the giant fish would surely be able to haul the weight of all the world's presents. Lantern sharks and smalleye pygmy sharks are both shrimps compared to the whale shark at less 30 centimeters in length. But they have a bright idea that may keep them safe from predators and could guide Santa's sleigh. Studies by Julien Claes of the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium proved the sharks, like squid, have photophores on their bellies that were capable of producing light. Hormonal signals caused the shark’s underside to glow. The lights may help disguise the shark's silhouette from predators looking up towards the light filtering down from the surface. The lights may also aid in communication. But landing a whaleshark on a rooftop may be too big of a challenge, even if the elves could figure out how to keep the fish alive out of water.
NEWS: Glowing Shark Wears Cloak of Invisibility
Scorpion flourescence under u.v. light, North
Santa has to deliver presents to some pretty rough parts of the world. He might need some protection. The bright glow of a scorpion leading the way would surely keep the jolly old elf safe from sleigh-jackers. Scorpions naturally glow under UV-light. Entomologists use this to find the creatures at night by searching the desert with portable UV- lights. Scientists aren't completely sure why the scorpions glow. It may be that the glow is a by product of their exoskeletons chemical structure. Or it could be part of the mechanism they use to avoid coming out in daylight or during the full moon. But sadly scorpions will probably have to go on the naughty list. Children would simply be afraid if the patter of reindeer hooves was replaced by the skittering of scorpion claws on the roof.
Italy, Tuscany, View of fireflies in meadow a
One of the most familiar of luminescent creatures, the firefly, has some distinct advantages over its rivals for Rudolph's job. For one thing, they can already fly. Plus, they produce their own light and don't need any UV-light sources or genetic engineering to help them out. Each species of firefly has a distinct sequence of flashes it uses to find a mate. But the frisky firefly better beware. Carnivorous fireflies can mimic their relatives' flash patterns. By copying the flash pattern of a female, they invite a male firefly over for a dinner date. The unsuspecting male ends up as the dinner. Just think of how sad the world's children would be if their toys were delayed because an amorous insect got himself eaten! For all their flying and glowing advantages, fireflies might be more trouble than they're worth for Kris Kringle.
The clusterwink snail (
Glowing snails? Now Santa is really getting to the bottom of barrel of potential sleigh draggers. A bioluminescent species of clusterwink snail (Hinea brasiliana) may use its light producing ability to make itself look bigger and startle off predators. Santa has to deliver presents to children all over the world. He could never make it using snails to pull his sled. It looks like no other animals are up for the challenge of leading Santa's reindeer through a foggy Christmas Eve. No wonder he's the most famous reindeer of all.
PHOTOS: What Glows in the Night
Reindeer populations worldwide are decreasing, according to the authors of a new study who hope that measures soon will be taken to save the majestic and iconic winter holiday animals.
Strengthening reindeer populations would have far reaching effects, according to the study, published in the Journal for Nature Conservation. Ecosystems, local economies and even climate change are just some of the matters that could be impacted, and not just in the northernmost polar region.
"Reindeer occur in the northern part of the Arctic and subarctic region," lead author Xiuxiang Meng explained to Discovery News. "In northern Europe (such as in Finland, Sweden and Norway), Asia (Russia, Mongolia and China) and North America (Canada and Alaska), reindeer populations have been declining for many years."
Meng, a professor at Renmin University's School of Environment and Natural Resources, and his colleagues further note that there are two subspecies of reindeer in the world: tundra reindeer and woodland reindeer. Some are wild or feral, while others are considered to be "semi-domesticated." The various types, also known as caribou, appear to be experiencing population decreases.
The researchers focused their study on reindeer in China, since the hoofed mammal's population there has declined at least 28 percent since the 1970s. Meng and his team said that reindeer in China originated from Siberia about 2000 years ago, migrating with the Ewenki people, who have been called "the last hunting tribe of China."
The Ewenki have never tamed or fully domesticated the reindeer, which feed on their own. People just provide basic herd management, such as provisioning the animals with salt. The Ewenki benefit from the reindeer's meat, hides, antlers, milk and other things.
The researchers, however, believe that at least six factors are causing the reindeer population to decline. The first is inbreeding. Since reindeer populations here and in other locations are low, there is a greater risk for genetic deterioration. The second factor is poaching, often for the very same antlers that grab our attention on holiday cards.
The third are natural predators. As the scientists mention, "Bears, wolves and lynx are the three main predators of reindeer, and may kill as many as a third of reindeer calves each year."
Lack of herders and breeders, climate change, and changes to the tourism industry round out the list. To attract more tourists, herders have been moving closer to where people tend to congregate, putting reindeer at risk from traffic, the aforementioned poaching and other problems.
Achyut Aryal, a researcher at Massey University, echoed the concerns. He told Discovery News that disease is yet another threat to reindeer populations worldwide.
Both he and Meng believe that the IUCN Red List Data on reindeer needs to be updated. As it stands, reindeer are classified as being of "least concern," in terms of their conservation status. This is based on a 2008 assessment.
"The semi-domesticated (reindeer) population in China, Mongolia and Russia—and especially China—should be given enough concern by the IUCN Red List," Meng said. "Our survey showed that the reindeer in China comprise the southernmost reindeer population in the world, which is so important to the distribution and conservation of reindeer worldwide."
Meng and his team are working on yet another study to determine how reindeer herding first emerged in the world. They have data supporting that reindeer herding originated in forests located in Russia, Mongolia and China.