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Greenland sled dogs at risk of extinction

New publication by Christian Sonne, Rikke Langebæk, Rune Dietz, Emilie Andersen-Ranberg, Geoff Houser, Anders J. Hansen, Mikkel-Holger S. Sinding, Morten Tange Olsen, Carsten Egevang, M. Thomas P. Gilbert og Morten Meldgaard

Foto: Carsten Egevang

Dog (Canis familiaris) and sled remains found together suggest that the first sled dogs arose approximately 10,000 years ago (1). The ancestors to current sled dog breeds were essential to the Inuit’s conquest of the Arctic. Sled dogs provided the main transport and hunting platform (2) for various Inuit groups, including the Old Bering Sea culture and Punuk (3), dating back at least 2000 years (4). The endemic Greenland sled dog breed lives with local communities north of the Arctic Circle on both the west and east coasts of Greenland. Greenland sled dog numbers have declined substantially, from more than 25,000 in 2002 (5) to fewer than 15,000 in 2016 [p. 15 in (6)].

There are multiple reasons for this decline. First, because of climate change, sea-ice is retreating, which hampers traditional hunting and hinders the provision of basic food for humans and dogs alike (7). Second, a large number of dogs and entire subpopulations are being wiped out by epidemics of canine distemper and parvovirus (8). Third, a change in culture has led people to replace the sledge with the snowmobile [p. 23 in (6)]. Unlike most other endangered species, sled dogs are domestic animals that can potentially be bred if there are incentives to do so. However, these changes in the cultural legacy and the reduced need for the dogs to pull sledges have led to correspondingly reduced motivation to breed enough dogs to maintain population numbers.

This drastic population decline could lead to the extinction of this unique breed, which would substantially affect how the Greenland Inuit use their environment, and Edited by Jennifer Sills Sled dogs at work in Greenland. in turn could affect health and well-being. Furthermore, because Greenland sled dogs are widely distributed and are vulnerable to the same health risks as humans (such as zoonosis, environmental chemical contaminants, and climate change), the species is being used to monitor One Health—an initiative streamlining the health of humans, animals, and the environment—in the Arctic (9). To mitigate disease outbreaks and to halt population decline, we urgently need more research focused on these culturally and ecologically important Greenland sled dogs. 

Science  08 Jun 2018: Vol. 360, Issue 6393, pp. 1080. DOI: 10.1126/science.aat9578