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Scientists Are Attaching Cameras to Caribou to Find Out Why They're Dying

Something is killing off Nunavik's caribou, and biologists believe the herd's babies may hold the answer.

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Apr 5 2017, 10:00am

Flickr/peulpeloup

For some mysterious reason, caribou in Nunavik—the northernmost region of Quebec, Canada—are dying.

Over the past 15 years, the Leaf River caribou herd, which occupies the upper tip of Nunavik, has thinned to fewer than 200,000 individuals. This represents a population decline of more than two-thirds, and biologists aren't sure why it's happening.

So, in search of data and answers, scientists at Quebec's Université Laval devised a way to monitor baby caribou and their mothers.

Caribou Ungava/YouTube

A caribou calf seen from its mother's camera collar

By attaching GPS-enabled camera collars to female caribou, staff at the university's Caribou Ungava research project are gathering valuable insight into the lives of newborn calves. Young caribou are good indicators of a herd's overall health, but previously, getting a headcount on calves has required scientists to attach radio transmitters to them; often causing mothers to abandon their babies.

Instead, camera collars were placed on sedated, pregnant caribou eight weeks before their delivery dates. According to researchers, this was to avoid causing unnecessary harm to the animals. The cameras shot 10-second videos every 20 minutes, between June and September of last year.

"The risk was that we might not see the calves on the camera. That's what my colleagues were telling me," Steeve Côté, a member of Caribou Ungava, told Nunatsiaq Online. "But I proved them wrong. It worked really fine and it gives extra data as well."

What biologists were able to see was an unexpected delight. A newborn caribou nuzzling its mother. A herd making its journey through snowy terrain. And an underwater view of caribou swimming across a river. None of these vignettes had ever been documented before, since the only way to monitor caribou has been to directly observe them—an imperfect method with many hindrances.

All of the 14 females who received collars survived the monitoring season. Of their thirteen calves, eight were still visible in footage come September. According to Caribou Ungava, this marked a survival rate of 62 percent, which was a better outcome than they anticipated.

Nunavimmiut, the Indigenous peoples of Nunavik, haven't always been fond of collaring caribou. Côté told Nunatsiaq Online that older GPS collars were heavier and more invasive. So to remedy this, the team opted for German-made devices that weighed about 2.5 pounds, and cost $5,000 each.

Caribou Ungava/YouTube

"We are very concerned with that and we would not want to do something that would disturb the animals because if we change their survival, if we change their behaviour, than we are not measuring what we should be measuring," Côté added.

Still, biologists don't have any definitive theories as to why Nunavik's caribou are dwindling. The researchers don't believe that sport hunting, which is slated to be banned entirely in 2018, is to blame.

Côté seemed to hint that subsistence hunting, which potentially claims thousands of caribou each year, and isn't always reported, could play a factor. But he noted that the issue was "very spicy" and politically sensitive. Caribou are a key part of Nunavimmiut culture and diet, and subsistence hunting can be preferable to paying high prices for imported meat.

For now, Caribou Ungava will continue studying the Leaf River herd. Their current research period extends through 2020, and will also monitor the caribou's main predators, the grey wolf and black bear.