By Jess McHugh
September 01, 2016

After a bizarre story surfaced out of Norway earlier this week in which 323 reindeer were reportedly struck by lightning and all died together, scientists are exploring alternate theories about the animals’ demise, by beheading the corpses and using samples of their brain tissue to test for disease.

The simultaneous death on Hardangervidda, a Norwegian plateau popular with hikers and tourists, was a seemingly unprecedented event. The national park is home to around 10,000 wild reindeer, and more than twice that many roam the tundra of Norway.

Scientists tested specifically for something called “chronic wasting disease,” local Norwegian news outlets reported. Given the mysterious circumstances of the reindeers’ death, scientists tested their brain matter to see if the disease may have been present, as it can spread rapidly among a herd.

The syndrome is a relatively rare occurrence that can affect deer both in captivity and in the wild. As its name suggests, the animals slowly waste away, growing listless and anti-social, and one of the tell-tale symptoms is a deer that consistently casts its head downward. They begin steadily losing weight until they perish.

Once the clinical stage of the syndrome has begun, it cannot be reversed.

While there have been no cases of the disease in humans, relatively little is known about it, and health professionals recommend that hunters do not eat animals who died from the disease or drink water where their corpses might have decomposed.

At least 35 samples from Hardangervidda have been tested so far and none have contained traces of the disease, leading local authorities to recommend the beheaded corpses are left where they are.

“We have no plans to bring animals out of the plateau,” Erik Lund, an official with the Norwegian Environment Agency, told public broadcaster NRK, noting that the animals were not near any popular trails or water sources.