Posts Tagged ‘weanies’

Wild Reindeer and More in the Sub-Antarctic

February 24th, 2010 at 8:13 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

We anchored last night in the protected and calm waters of Jason Harbour (or maybe it’s “Jason Harbor”?). Wet snow was once again companion – it had started snowing last night, and had not let up much since.

From our balcony, which faced our anticipated landing spot, we could see penguins (King penguins mostly), fur seals, and off in the distance, a herd of about 15-20 reindeer.

Part of the herd of reindeer we saw this morning - note a couple of bucks still have dangling bits of velvet on their antlers

Part of the herd of reindeer we saw this morning - note a couple of bucks still have dangling bits of velvet on their antlers

Reindeer were introduced to South Georgia several times between 1911 and 1925 – only a couple of dozen total, but they have ultimately thrived, and it’s estimated that there are around 2,000 reindeer now spread throughout South Georgia. They are perhaps among the most destructive introduced species on the island, as they destroy young vegetation as well as certain lichens and herbs that would otherwise flourish. Their diet ultimately also causes soil erosion, which leads to other issues in the ecosystem.

After landing, we followed one of our naturalists, Steve MacLean, through the bogs lining the shoreline towards a large ridge inland. There we caught our first close glimpse of reindeer.

The interesting thing to observe was the interaction between the reindeer and fur seals, where at one point they would simply be hanging out harmoniously (or apparently so), and then some rambunctious male fur seal would take it upon himself to charge at the reindeer and scatter them off. It may not be obvious from their physique, but fur seals can run outrun a running man, so they are also able to give reindeer a good chase.

Fur seals chase reindeer out of their perceived territory

Fur seals chase reindeer out of their perceived territory

Steve also explained how antlers grow, in contrast to horns. Horns last a lifetime, whereas antlers are seasonal – they are cast off at the end of the summer and regrown anew starting in the spring. During growth, antlers are covered by a skin called “velvet” (due to its texture). Velvet is filled with blood vessels which help feed the growth of the antlers (which are effectively bone). Once full antler growth is achieved, the velvet ends up coming off – either by getting old and drying and falling off or during fights between reindeer. Notably, reindeer of both sexes grow antlers.

And, as luck would have it, we saw two reindeer bucks, both with tattered velvet hanging from their antlers, get into a tussle, and that caused a large piece of velvet to get ripped off. After the reindeer had moved on, we found the velvet – pretty amazing stuff.

A piece of freshly discarded velvet with blood vessels and tissue showing

A piece of freshly discarded velvet with blood vessels and tissue showing

And near the velvet was a skeleton of a reindeer, which Steve estimated to be about two years old based on the fact that cartilage was still in place in a couple of the joints as well as the wear on the teeth in the jaw bones we found. Also, because the skeleton had a full rack (antlers), it probably died in about the same time of year as now – the end of the southern summer.

The skeleton of the reindeer buck we found

The skeleton of the reindeer buck we found

Steve also showed us the teeth in the jawbone, which are multi-layered, and in reindeer they do not continue to grow after maturity.

The tops of the teeth in the reindeer jaw bone we found - note the multiple=

The tops of the teeth in the reindeer jaw bone we found - note the multiple layers of enamel and dentin

Moving on, we came across a number of elephant seals, including a group of young males molting, a much larger male by himself, and a “weanie” – an elephant seal pup that has been recently weaned. They all had large doleful, almost alien, eyes, which Steve indicated was the result of their need to be able to see with even the smallest bit of ambient light at the extreme depths that they typically dive at to find food.

A group of elephant seals during their molting phase

A group of elephant seals during their molting phase

An elephant seal 'weanie'

An elephant seal 'weanie'

We ended our walk along the beach, where a large variety of kelp had washed up, and some King penguins could also be found.

A pair of King penguins bids us adieu

A pair of King penguins bids us adieu

We considered the morning to a splendid one – full of discovery and enlightenment, even though all of our outer clothing was thoroughly soaked from the never ending wet snow.

More photos as well as larger versions of the ones above can be found in my Flickr pages.