Two years ago, 323 reindeer in southeast Norway were struck by lightning and died. Many of the animals were found on top of each other on a remote mountain plateau. Norwegian officials said they had never seen a case like it before.
Authorities flew in to remove the dead reindeer's heads for a study on diseases in deer and elk, and the carcasses were abandoned in the mountainous area to decay. These carcasses may end up boosting plant diversity in a "novel mechanism," as scavengers drop faeces containing seeds near the dead animals, according to a Biology Letters study published last week.
Sam Steyaert — a researcher at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and the University of South-Eastern Norway — and his team set up a field lab in the mountainous region, where they observed that the faeces of birds and foxes were concentrated around the carcasses. The team also detected wolverines, golden eagles, and foxes; some were observed while others were caught on camera.
Hundreds of ravens and crows — the predominant scavengers — also left faeces by the carcasses. Many of those droppings contained crowberry seeds, and the scientists found that these seeds could become seedlings.
Crowberry is a keystone species of the alpine tundra, which means it has a disproportionately large impact on biodiversity — partly because it is a significant source of food. Nutrient-dense and bare soil can help crowberry seedlings grow, and the reindeer carcasses produced the right conditions to make it happen.
According to the study, the plant life closest to an animal carcass dies due to sudden shifts in the soil's acidity and nutrient concentrations. The patch of land becomes a "decomposition island", supporting plant life that could otherwise not grow in the area. This can have wide-ranging consequences for increasing the genetic diversity in the area.
Moving forward, Steyaert and his team predict that the area's plants will diversify as scavengers continue to drop faeces filled with seeds around the decomposition island of reindeer.
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