A biologist goes to Ungava to better understand the caribou

Witness to the catastrophic decline of migratory caribou in the Far North, an eminent Quebec biologist will collect DNA from 30 caribou from the George River to better understand the species.

When Steeve Côté went for the first time to the shores of Ungava Bay, in 1992, it was during a summer job. There were 800,000 caribou in that herd at the time.

“There were so many at the top of the ridges that the mountain was moving,” he says.

With such a population of ungulates, one of the largest in the world at the time, the concern was not for the survival of the species, but for the devastation caused to the scanty vegetation of the tundra.

However, the numbers have shrunk by 99% since then, and the population is close to extinction, which worries biologists.

The objective of the next mission, the first in three years for Professor Côté, is to understand the reasons for the disappearance of the migratory caribou from the George River, and the marked declines in other populations of this species in Quebec. The interventions will be followed by a television team from the BBC, in England.

Caribou COVID-19 test

The Laval University biologist, who works in collaboration with the Quebec Ministry of Forests and Wildlife, will capture the animals using a net launched from a helicopter.

During the few minutes that biologists isolate the animal, they install a transmitter collar and take samples.

One of them must be extracted from one nostril using a long swab.

“A bit like a COVID test,” laughs Professor Côté. This sample will make it possible to document the diet of these migrants by analyzing the microbiota.

Genetic samples are also planned. With Claude Robert, from the Department of Animal Sciences, the biologist has developed a biochip containing genetic information from 1,600 caribou. This tool will soon be made available to the global scientific community. Russia and several Scandinavian countries are interested in their caribou herds, which are also in decline.

Steeve Côté created Caribou Ungava in 2007. It is the only research group exclusively devoted to this species in Quebec.

About forty master’s and doctoral students work there under his direction; most are now employed by departments and wildlife organizations.

The reasons for the decline remain mysterious. Access to food could be at issue. The disappearance of this food source and the increase in predation (black bears, wolves) could partly explain the decline.

Global warming could also be to blame. The Caribou Ungava team notably conducts studies on episodes of freezing rain, which are increasingly frequent in the Far North.

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