Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)

In light of the Christmas season, and the happy chance that has led to my regular post falling directly on Christmas day, I have decided to blog about some of the most Christmassy animals around: reindeer. But not the red-nosed kind, unfortunately. Rudolph would not do very well in the wild, I’m afraid, with that big red nose acting as a beacon for hunters and predators. Still, even plain-nosed reindeer have a place in Christmas, and today we’ll celebrate by learning all about them.

First things first – although we call the Christmas animals reindeer, in North America this species is actually known as caribou, with the reindeer title used in Europe. They have a fairly broad range, inhabiting the northern arctic and subarctic regions almost around the entire globe. They live in tundra or boreal forests, with the southernmost populations reaching just north of the American-Canadian border.

Real live reindeer pulling a real sled. Reindeer are semi-domesticated, and can be used to pull things. I don't think they can fly though.

Real live reindeer pulling a real sled. Reindeer are semi-domesticated, and can be used to pull things. I don’t think they can fly though.

Reindeer colour varies with region, sex and season, from dark brown to almost white. These tend to match the habitat of the reindeer; white animals are mainly found in the tundra of Greenland while dark reindeer tend to inhabit forests. One thing reindeer are superbly adapted for is the cold. Their coat is thick but light, with the hollow hairs tapering to a point, trapping heat close to the body. As well, the nose of reindeer consists of turbinate bones to increase surface area, which heats up incoming air before it reaches the lungs. The hooves of reindeer are broad and concave, and change according to season. When the ground is melted and soft, the footpads turn into sponges to provide traction, while in the winter these retract, which creates a tough outer rim that digs into the ice to prevent slippage. Pretty cool, right? Although both sexes have horns (the only deer species in which this is true), there is a marked difference between males and females, with males being larger and having much more complicated horns.

Male reindeer compete for females in October, after they have shed their velvet (which covers their antlers as they regrow). A single reindeer may win up to 15 females, which has got to be a lot of work for that poor guy. Males don’t even eat during the rut, and lose a ton of weight. Calves are born in the spring, when food is relatively plentiful, are able to suckle minutes after being born, and can outrun a normal person (maybe not Usain Bolt, though I don’t know if he’s ever raced a reindeer calf) at one day old. They feed on milk for one month before starting to graze, and become independent in early fall.

A reindeer calf, being adorable.

A reindeer calf, being adorable.

Reindeer are a migratory species, travelling a greater distance than any other land mammal, sometimes covering over 5,000 kilometres in a year. They move from winter feeding grounds to calving areas, and herds congregated in the summer range can number more then ten thousand. That is a crazy number of reindeer. They stick together for safety, as well as to have some respite from the thousands of flies and mosquitos that constantly harass them in the summer. Not much fun in the tundra, it would seem.

Despite the harsh climate they inhabit, reindeer do exceedingly well for themselves. Not only that, but they consent to pull Santa’s sleigh and around the world. Seems like they’re fairly nice animals. Well, Merry Christmas, and think of how awesome reindeer are every time you open a present. They brought it to you!

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