The Rangifer Limit

The rise in scientific interest in the northlands, or the cold regions, or whatever else someone may choose to call them, after World War II resulted in a spate of definitions of what, exactly, constituted the polar regions. The terms ‘tundra’ and ‘taiga’ made their way into the scientific–and the popular–lexicon, and northern scholars began to appreciate that there were great similarities in the geographic and biologic features of what came to be called the Circumpolar North. (It’s worth pointing out that the Cold War was less intense in the cold regions, and cooperation between scientists in the West and the Soviet bloc persisted in all but the worst times.) Among the results of international understanding of the polar regions was the recognition that reindeer and caribou were all the same species, Rangifer tarandus, whose various populations happily interbred whenever they were given the chance, and differed among themselves only enough to allow recognition of somewhat ambiguous subspecies.

Rangifer tarandus

Photo by: Peter Nijenhuis

A good deal of the impetus to recognize, or to create, boundaries and definitions seems to have come about with the recognition that the northern tree line, or timberline, was at least a roughly similar phenomenon in various sectors of the northern polar regions, and that it could be correlated with a physical feature, the amount of summer warmth as measured at a simple meteorological station. The treeline and the 10°C July isotherm began an intimate association which persists to this day, and it forms a boundary which most people accept as the southern edge of the Arctic. The southern limit of the subArctic is more problematic; most of us know when our journey northward has brought us into the boreal forest, but we may be hard-put to explain how we know. The geographers took a page from the timberline/isotherm concept and suggested that a line including the area in which no more than four summer months displayed a mean temperature above 10°C defined the subArctic. On this basis, I once wrote a newspaper article showing that the hills of northern Vermont fell within the subArctic, since our temperature records over a number of years indicated that May and October mean temperatures fell below 10°C. That was 40 years ago, and global warming has now consigned us to the temperate regions for the forseeable future.

Other efforts to delineate the (terrestrial) polar regions and the zones within them depend on features such as the duration of snow cover. Then there are international political decisions, such as including everything above 60°North Latitude (plus, in some iterations, the Aleutian Islands, which dip southward to about the Latitude of London.) The 60 degree definition leads to incongruities such as leaving all of Labrador and most of Quebec in the South, while leaving the Faroe Islands, where there is seldom snow for Christmas, in the North, along with Bergen, Helsinki, and St. Petersburg, but not frigid Winnipeg or Churchill, Manitoba, famously home of tundra and polar bears.

I propose a simple alternative to the various definitions of the Northlands: the recent natural range of reindeer/caribou, the circumpolar, ubiquitous Rangifer tarandus. If you have, or had within historical times, Rangifer, you are in the North. I’m especially pleased with this for personal reasons. When I applied for my first hunting license in Vermont in about 1950, I was given a book of regulations which said that it was illegal to take caribou in Vermont. I suspect that caribou were always few and far between in the state, but some probably wandered over from Maine, where caribou persisted until early in the 20th Century, and were hunted into the 1890s. Now all that’s left of the caribou population south of the St. Lawrence River is a tiny and endangered colony in the Shickshock mountains of the Gaspé Peninsula.

But I contend that we are still honestly within the north, global warming notwithstanding.

Of course, there are some problems with the Rangifer definition. Caribou are good at crossing wide expanses of pack ice, and seem to, at one time, have made it to Franz Josef Land from northern Greenland, thus entering the paleoarctic or Eurasian region, and becoming reindeer in the process. But they can’t make it to isolated islands whose connection with ocean ice is more tenuous, so the Aleutians, Iceland, and the Faroes are left out. The Scottish Highlands, which lost their reindeer population in prehistoric times,  may present a difficulty, but they support a small but healthy and growing introduced population, as does Iceland. I’d say their claims to northernness were legitimate. The reindeer who provided the live models for the painted caves of central and southern France probably died out before the end of the Pleistocene, some 11,000 years ago, so there’s no compunction about leaving the Dordogne Valley well outside the North, although the France of the terminal Pleistocene certainly fell within the greatly expanded Ice Age North. Finally, there’s the issue of the Greenland Ice Cap, certainly part of the North, most of whose high and fodderless reaches are never sullied by a passing caribou.

I’m also gratified that the Rangifer definition of the North extends the boreal boundary south of Siberia into Mongolia, where reindeer are herded with what may be some of the most archaic husbandry traditions, and where wild reindeer still roam–and where they might well have encountered wild camels in days gone by. My experiences with the plants, larch forests, and permafrost of northern Mongolia, as well as the reindeer, make me feel right at home in the True North, perhaps with an added sense of the nature of the cold, arid, glacier-free steppes of Ice Age Asia, where wooly mammoths and shaggy wold horses once roamed.

by: Steven B Young