The dominant cecal bacteria in the high-arctic Svalbard reindeer were characterized, their population densities were estimated, and cecal pH was determined in summer, when food quality and availability is good, and in winter, when it is very poor. In summer the total culturable viable bacterial population was (8.9 +/- 5.3) X 10(8) cells ml-1, whereas in winter it was (1.5 +/- 0.7) X 10(8) cells ml-1, representing a decrease to 17% of the summer population density. Of the dominant species of cultured bacteria, Butyrivibrio fibrisolvens represented 23% in summer and 18% in winter. Streptococcus bovis represented 17% in summer and 5% in winter. Bacteroides ruminicola represented 10% in summer and 26% in winter. In summer and winter, respectively, the proportion of the viable population showing the following activities was as follows: fiber digestion, 36 and 48%; cellulolysis, 10 and 6%; xylanolysis, 33 and 48%; and starch utilization, 77 and 71%. The most abundant cellulolytic species in summer was Butyrivibrio fibrisolvens, representing 62% of the total cellulolytic population, and in winter it was Ruminococcus albus, representing 80% of the total cellulolytic population. The most abundant xylanolytic species in summer was Butyrivibrio fibrisolvens, and in winter it was Bacteroides ruminicola, representing 59 and 54% of the xylanolytic isolates in summer and winter, respectively. The cecal bacterial of the Svalbard reindeer have the ability to digest starch and the major structural carbohydrates of the diet that are not digested in the rumen. The cecum in these animals has the potential to contribute very substantially to the digestion of the available plant material in both summer and winter.