Big herbivores preserve plant life in a warming Arctic

Animals like caribou and musk oxen slow the loss of plant diversity caused by disappearing sea ice

Herbivores in the Arctic, like caribou (Rangifer tarandus) and muskoxen (Ovibos moschatus), survive by eating the vegetation of the tundra. But in the midst of climate change, they may also keep these plant communities alive. Tundra diversity—including plants, lichens and fungi—have been declining due to the disappearance of sea ice. But in a study published in Science, researchers found that the presence of large ungulates slowed the decline due to the way they browse the plant understory. In a 15-year experiment, researchers found tundra diversity declined almost twice as fast when herbivores were kept out of portions of the tundra.

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Header Image: The presence of herbivores like caribou can slow the loss of tundra vegetation caused by disappearing sea ice. Credit: Jeff Kerby