“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!

– Clement Clarke Moore, “A Visit From St. Nicholas

As we inch toward Christmas, one of the obvious nature connections to our modern celebrations is the reindeer. Oddly, though reindeer are ubiquitous to our knowledge of Santa and his yearly sleigh ride, in North America we don’t actually call these creatures reindeer when we encounter them in the wild. We call them caribou!

Reindeer and caribou are both the same critter, a species of deer, scientifically dubbed Rangifer tarandus. They are circumpolar animals, meaning they live in the circular area around the North Pole. Large populations reside in the northern United States and Canada, as well as Russia and Scandinavia. This range makes it easy for Santa to recruit.

A reindeer - photo by Are G Nilsen

In the poetic tradition, reindeer are able to fly, transporting Santa’s sleigh across the globe to the homes of good girls and boys. Obviously, reindeer cannot fly, but they do exhibit some other interesting physical characteristics.

Reindeer are the only cervid (deer) species where the females grow antlers, in addition to the males. Though caribou are the fifth largest species of deer in terms of size, their antlers rank second on the size list behind only the moose. The racks can become as large as three feet by five feet!

The process of growing and shedding antlers is called antlerogenesis. Reindeer lose their antlers each year in the winter. Males begin to grow new sets in March or April; females start their growing season in May or June. As antlers develop they are covered in velvet, a spongy flesh composed of blood vessels. When the antlers reach maturity, the reindeer rub the velvet off. Males use their antlers to compete for mates during the rut. When their butting usefulness is through, the antlers are shed completely and the circle begins anew.

The periodicity is so engrained in the lives of the Inuit people of North America that they name several months after caribou and their antler processes. According to the University of Guelph, May is “nurrait, the month when “caribou are calving”, followed later in July by saggaruut, “when caribou skin thins”, then akulliruut, “when caribou skin thickens”, and finally amiraijaut, “when velvet falls off caribou antlers”.”

A close-up of reindeer velvet - image from Reindeer Farm

The color of the critters varies widely, typically changing with geographical latitude. The farther north a reindeer lives the whiter her fur will be; conversely, the southern individuals tend to be darker. Their coats consist of two layers of fur. The inner layer is dense and the outer layer is comprised of hollow, air-filled hair. These hollow designs aid in insulation. Intriguingly, the hair also allows the reindeer to swim with much of their bodies out of the water because the hollow hair acts as a sort of buoyancy agent. It would certainly be a strange sight to see such a large animal floating so highly!

Their hooves adapt to the seasons and to their climates. In summer, the hooves are spongy, which grant extra traction in the thawing tundra; in winter, the hooves shrink and harden, offering extra stability on frozen ground and allowing them to cut through ice and snow to search for food. They also have hair on their feet! When you live in the arctic, it’s never bad to have built-in foot-gloves.

Reindeer are herbivores, feasting on mosses, herbs, ferns, grasses, and tree shoots. They are ruminants, featuring four stomach chambers. A specialized bacteria in their gut allows them to eat lichen during the winter, the only large mammal to be able to do so. This specific lichen is appropriately called reindeer lichen. The average reindeer scarfs down up to 18 pounds of vegetation per day! During the summer, when the sun shines 24 hours a day, reindeer alter their sleep schedules, snoozing when they need to digest food. 

To date, only one reindeer has ever been observed with a red nose.

As you might surmise from the names of their months, reindeer are extremely important to the Inuit, but they are not the only peoples to revere the reindeer as a keystone species. Other arctic groups who depended on the reindeer include the Inupiat, the Inuvialuit, the Hän, the Northern Tutchone, and the Gwich’in. These groups used the deer for food, clothing, and transportation. Reindeer are the only cervid species to be at least semi-domesticated. Raising reindeer is an important industry in many areas.

The largest herd in the world is in Russia and includes somewhere between 400,000 and 1,000,000 individuals. Those numbers might sound robust, but other herds worldwide are declining rapidly in population. In fact, the reindeer is listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. That’s just one step above Endangered on the scale. Caribou have essentially vanished from the Lower 48 United States. Worldwide, experts estimate reindeer populations have declined by 40%.

Reindeer pull a sleigh in Russia - photo by Elen Schurova

Hopefully, we can usher in an era where a signature species, such as the reindeer, can thrive and not face extinction. For now, Santa’s engine power really exists in our world and it would be nice to keep it that way!

I’ll add that to my Christmas Wish List.

Further Reading and Exploration

A Visit from St. Nicholas – Clement Clarke Moore

Caribou – National Parks Service

Caribou (Reindeer) – National Geographic

Living with Reindeer – Nat Geo Video

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