The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A lightning strike killed 323 reindeer, and this is the ghastly aftermath

Some of the more than 300 wild reindeer that were killed by lighting in Hardangervidda, Norway, on Friday. (Havard Kjotvedt /Norwegian Environment Agency, NTB scanpix, via AP)

The macabre images released Monday by the Norwegian Environment Agency look like something out of a wildlife zombie-apocalypse movie, or the aftermath of a cervid “Game Of Thrones” battle: a treeless landscape dotted with hundreds upon hundreds of reindeer corpses.

The 323 reindeer were killed by lightning Friday, the agency said, in a rare natural massacre that counts as the deadliest lightning strike on record. It took place in a private hunting area of the Hardangervidda mountain plateau in central southern Norway, a verdant and frigid tableau of streams, rocks and glaciers that is home to one of the largest reindeer herds in Europe.

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Officials told Agence France-Presse that a gamekeeper stumbled upon the eerie scene Friday and that 70 young reindeer were among the victims. Five animals had to be euthanized, said officials, who told the news service that they were not sure what they would do with the bodies. The gamekeeper told NTB, the Norwegian news service, that samples of the carcasses were sent to a state veterinary institute, which would officially determine the cause of death.

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“We’ve never seen anything like this on this scale,” agency official Kjartan Knutsen said.”There were very strong storms in the area on Friday. The animals stay close together in bad weather and these ones were hit by lightning.”

Death by lightning is not terribly unusual, of course. According to the National Weather Service, 32 people in the United States have been unlucky enough to die that way so far this year, and about 350 people here have been killed by lighting since 2006. Guinness World Records says the “worst lightning strike disaster” occurred in 1971, when a bolt took down a commercial airplane in Peru, killing 91 people.

So it follows that animals, most of which spend the majority or all of their lives in the great outdoors, also meet their end this way, though the record-keeping on those fatalities is assumed to be spotty at best.

Lightning kills 300 reindeer in Norway (Video: Reuters)

Cattle and sheep are common victims. Guinness reports that the largest recorded number of livestock killed by a single lightning bolt is 68. They were Jersey cows struck in Australia in 2005. (Three cows were briefly paralyzed but recovered.) In March, 21 cows in South Dakota were killed when lightning struck the metal bale feeder they were eating from, leaving their hulking carcasses frozen in an haunting circle.

Sea lions, caribou and wild turkeys have also been documented lightning victims, as have elephants, antelope, a sort-of-famous TV giraffe and a flock of 52 geese in Canada in 1932. The fowl were collected for “wild goose dinners,” according to a news account turned up by science blogger Darren Naish. Naish noted that most animals are killed by currents that run through the ground, not from direct strikes.

Among the more well-known animal lightning strike victims is a bison who resides at Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge in Iowa. A wildlife biologist discovered the bull, bloodied and emaciated, in the summer of 2013. The reserve decided to “let nature take its course,” according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service account — and against the odds, the bison’s tale had a happy ending.

Nearly three years later, he seemed to be doing just fine, one large hairless patch of shoulder notwithstanding. And he had been given a fitting name: Sparky.

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