Over 300 reindeer were struck by lightning in the same spot in Norway, and their carcasses have had a surprising effect on the landscape

The bodies of reindeer in the Hardangervidda, in Norway. Lightning struck the central mountain plateau in 2016 and killed more than 300 of the animals.

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The bodies of reindeer in the Hardangervidda, in Norway. Lightning struck the central mountain plateau in 2016 and killed more than 300 of the animals.
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Havard Kjotvedt/SNO/Miljodirektoratet/NTB Scanpix via Reuters

  • In 2016, 323 reindeer in the same area in Norway were struck by lightning and died.
  • Their heads were removed for research, but the carcasses were left in the mountainous area to decay.
  • A study published last week suggests that the reindeer carcasses are increasing plant diversity in the area.
  • The feces of scavengers coming to consume the dead animals contain many seeds that could eventually produce new plants.

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 reindeer heads for a study on diseases in deer and elk, and the carcasses were left in the mountainous area to decay. These carcasses may end up boosting plant diversity in a “novel mechanism,” as scavengers drop feces containing seeds near the dead animals, according to a study published in the journal Biology Letters 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 feces of birds and foxes were concentrated around the carcasses. They 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 feces by the carcasses. Many of those droppings contained crowberry seeds, and the scientists found that these seeds could become seedlings.

The researchers described crowberry as “a keystone species of the alpine tundra,” meaning it has a disproportionately large effect 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 were found to produce the right conditions to make it happen.

According to the study, the plant life closest to an animal carcass dies because of sudden shifts in the soil’s acidity and nutrient concentrations. The patch of land becomes a “decomposition island,” supporting plant life that might otherwise not grow in the area. This can have wide-ranging consequences for increasing the genetic diversity in the area.

Steyaert and his team predict that moving forward, the area’s plants will diversify as scavengers continue to drop feces filled with seeds around the decomposition island of reindeer.