CARIBOU: Lichens

As winter approaches in Alaska, the caribou there are moving to areas where they can locate food easily. I’m Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet, presented by the American Museum of Natural History.

Right now, we’re listening to sounds of grazing caribou. The name khalibu was given to the animal by Newfoundland’s Micmac people. It means “pawer” or “scratcher” probably referring to the way that caribou use their hooves to scratch through the snow to reach their favorite winter dish — lichen.

Lichens are an extraordinary organism. They’re two distinct species, an algae and a fungus, living together as a single entity. The fungus keeps the algae from drying out, and the algae helps absorb nutrients. You often find lichens growing on boulders in blue-grey blotches. They’re incredibly hardy, and survive in some of the harshest conditions on earth.

“Lichen is often associated with caribou and it is their primary food during the wintertime, although even in winter they do browse to some extent on shrubs, especially willows, and they will take some dried grasses and sedges that they can get out through the snow.”

Ken Whitten is a Research Coordinator with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He explains that in the summertime, caribou chow down on green plants. But come winter, those same plants transport their nutrients to their roots and stems — parts of the plant that the caribou just don’t like. However, they do like lichen, and luckily, not many other animals do.

“For most other species, lichens are not a very palatable food. They tend to be high in various acids that are not very digestible to most other animals.”

Pulse of the Planet is presented by the American Museum of Natural History. I’m Jim Metzner.

CARIBOU: Lichens

In the winter, caribou paw the ground to get at their favorite dish, lichens.
Air Date:11/28/1997
Scientist:
Transcript:

As winter approaches in Alaska, the caribou there are moving to areas where they can locate food easily. I'm Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet, presented by the American Museum of Natural History.

Right now, we're listening to sounds of grazing caribou. The name khalibu was given to the animal by Newfoundland's Micmac people. It means "pawer" or "scratcher" probably referring to the way that caribou use their hooves to scratch through the snow to reach their favorite winter dish -- lichen.

Lichens are an extraordinary organism. They're two distinct species, an algae and a fungus, living together as a single entity. The fungus keeps the algae from drying out, and the algae helps absorb nutrients. You often find lichens growing on boulders in blue-grey blotches. They're incredibly hardy, and survive in some of the harshest conditions on earth.

"Lichen is often associated with caribou and it is their primary food during the wintertime, although even in winter they do browse to some extent on shrubs, especially willows, and they will take some dried grasses and sedges that they can get out through the snow."

Ken Whitten is a Research Coordinator with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He explains that in the summertime, caribou chow down on green plants. But come winter, those same plants transport their nutrients to their roots and stems -- parts of the plant that the caribou just don't like. However, they do like lichen, and luckily, not many other animals do.

"For most other species, lichens are not a very palatable food. They tend to be high in various acids that are not very digestible to most other animals."

Pulse of the Planet is presented by the American Museum of Natural History. I'm Jim Metzner.