To celebrate the festive season, today I am going to write about an animal that symbolises Christmas – the reindeer (Rangifer tarandus). Also known as Caribou in North America, the reindeer has a circumpolar distribution, meaning it is found across North America, Siberia and Northern Europe. Their habitats include Arctic tundra and boreal forest.
The reindeer’s most striking feature are their large, unusually shaped antlers. Their antlers are the second largest of any deer, beaten only by the moose. Reindeer are the one species of deer in which females also grow antlers. Their coat varies in colour depending on the time of year; it is more white in the winter but more brown in the summer.
Reindeer have specially adapted hooves that allow them to battle a variety of harsh and constantly-changing terrain. In the summer, their footpads become sponge-like to help them through the soft and wet tundra landscape. However, in the winter, their footpads shrink, exposing the hoof room, enabling them to dig through snow to reach food.
In North America, certain populations of caribou make great migrations between summer and winter. In the plentiful summer months, caribou spend their time in the north, eating a range of grasses and leaves. But as the first snow falls each year, the caribou head southwards to escape the unforgiving Arctic winters. During winter, they mainly feed on lichens. Some herds travel up to 5,000km (3,100 miles) every year to reach their preferred grazing grounds – the greatest migration of any terrestrial animal.
Reindeer have a whole fleet of predators to watch out for, including brown bears, polar bears, eagles and wolverines. However, by far the most effective predator of reindeer is the grey wolf. Reindeer are currently listed as vulnerable by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and are threatened by habitat loss, climate change and industrial development. The creation of new fences and development projects can disrupt their migratory routes, altering their distribution.
This Arctic deer has been domesticated by humans for hundreds of years. Nearly 3 million domesticated reindeer live in Northern Europe. Although less common nowadays, reindeer are used for transportation. They can pull a sled through tough terrain for many miles. Unfortunately, they are not capable of carrying a sled through the night sky to help Santa deliver his presents, at least as far as I’m aware.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.