Reindeer are sometimes called "camels of the frozen north." These mammals are of the Cervidae family. There genus is Rangifer tarandus. Just like cows, they are even toed ruminants.
Reindeer are domesticated caribou. While some distinctions can be made such as reindeer having shorter, more stout bodies than caribou and coats which are lighter and faces which are flatter, these two animals can in fact mate and create fertile offspring, they are scientifically classified the same way, and both have rather mean dispositions.
Caribou live in various Arctic areas of Europe, Asia, and North America. With the exception of Musk Ox these creatures live further north than any other hoofed animal. They can live within the Arctic Circle migrating from the northern taiga forests in winter to the wind swept tundra in summer.
The Reindeer Body
Reindeer are large animals although their size depends largely on their type. Some adults males grow approximately 43" high at the shoulder and weigh 219 pounds (99.5 kg) while others may way as much as 600 pounds. Females tend to be smaller standing 38.5 inches at the shoulder and weighing up to 188 pounds (85.5 kg.).
Caribou have large hoofs with a wide splay for walking on snow. This helps to distribute this large animalís weight and the hoof shape is important in helping caribou swim. Their coats are also built for snow with two layers of hair. The inner layer is woolly and fine trapping air against its body for warmth. The outer hair is long and hollow protecting the animal from the cold and creating bouyancy for swimming.
These creatures have a keen sense of smell, but poor eyesight. Often they will wander curiously toward a human or other animal unable to see clearly what it is. But once it catches any scent of danger it will run in the opposite direction at a fast gait.
One of the most fascinating characteristics of the reindeer are its antlers. The caribou, Rangifer is the only deer in which both male and females have antlers. In fact, even the young develop small spike antlers just 2 months after they are born. Also, while the female carries her antlers through winter until about May, the bulls, or males drop their antlers in early winter and do not grow another set until spring.
A reindeerís antlers grow a special brow tine which usually develops on just one side. This tine extends down over the face and is a broad "shovel" shape. Some scientists think this tine may be used to dig into snow to reach food. Although generally reindeer dig with their feet.
Reindeer will eat grasses, buds, sedges and flowering plants. They enjoy eating felt leaf willow leaves and mushrooms too. However, their diet consists mainly of lichen, sometimes called reindeer moss. Lichen is actually a symbiotic relationship of algae and fungi which grows in the northern regions.
The caribou is the most social and migratory of deer. Some travel hundreds of miles in large groups numbering in the thousands. Often and old cow or female caribou will lead them during migration, possibly because she is not only familiar with the terrain, but also with the "calving grounds."
Mating generally occurs from September through October. While reindeer do not have a particular home for raising their young called calves. They do tend to give birth in locations distinctive to their herd called calving grounds.
Calves may weigh from 10-20 pounds at birth and stand about 16" tall. They are able to walk minutes after birth and manage to keep up with the herd just hours after entering this world. Babies nurse on a milk rich in fat and high in protein for about one month. After this time they begin to eat plant matter, grasses, and lichens. A calf continues to live with its mother for up to 2 years.
Caribou are hunted mainly by wolves, grizzly bears, and man. Although wolverines sometimes also pose as a threat. However, the reindeersí biggest enemy tends to be insects. Mosquitoes and botflies or warble flies are a menace. They not only bite the caribou, but the botfly lays its eggs on these animals where the larvae make their home until mature.
Reindeer and Man
Reindeer are probably the only deer ever tamed and put to use by humans. The word reindeer means "animal that pastures." The Lapps or Sami of northern Scandinavia keep herds of reindeer. Traditionally these people were nomadic following herds from place to place. Now however, those groups that remain nomadic generally have only the men follow the reindeer herds while women and children stay in a more permanent location. Other groups keep reindeer herds much as cattle have been domesticated and kept.
The Sami use the reindeer for a variety of purposes. It is raised for its milk, meat, and hide. The hide was traditionally used for both clothing and shelter, although now it serves mostly for clothing and is sometimes exported. Reindeer are also used to haul loads, carrying or pulling the weight behind them. Pulling sleds they often serve as transportation. Occasionally they are ridden like a horse and a few Sami families have adopted favorite reindeer as pets.
Only in North America are caribou called "wild reindeer." The caribou are a traditional food for the Inuit people. Today the caribou remains important to the Inuits, with these people preferring to hunt this animal rather than herd and raise it on a farm as the Sami have adopted. Reindeer meat is eaten, bones are crushed to consume the marrow, and blood is put into soup. Some bones are used to create knives, tools, and fish hooks. Tendons serve as thread. Also, lichen in its natural state is indigestible to man. However, as remnants of food removed from the caribouís stomach it supplies a nutritious source of food for people.
- Caribou were alive during the ice age.
- Reindeer can trot long distances at a time and are excellent swimmers.
- These beasts are able to lay on snow without melting it or getting wet.
- Reindeer have been domesticated for as long as 7,000 years. This is longer than horses have been domesticated.
- Just a few days after birth, a calf can outrun an adult human.
- The reindeer often migrates up to 1,000 miles. It has the longest migrations of any land animal.
- Herds of 50,000 reindeer have been seen in Alaska at the Seward Peninsula and in the Russian republic reindeer today number 2,250,000.
- Each reindeer makes a unique call.
- Sometimes in the spring, cows will eat eggs, placenta, rodents, and antler to maintain a healthy nutritional balance.
- During the winter, the reindeersí metabolic rate lowers or slows.
Books for Children
- A Caribou Journey by Debbie S. Miller - A description of a caribou mother and her calf as they cross the tundra is filled with information about these creatures and accompanied by lovely paintings. Fascinating for ages 4-10. (amazon.com has it)
- A Caribou Alphabet (A Sunburst Book) by Mary Beth Owens - This book is more than just a simple alphabet book. It contains many interesting facts about real caribou and the habitat in which they live. Nice for ages 3-8. (amazon.com has it)
- Caribou (Our Wild World) by John F. McGee - This book has plenty of facts and nice photos which accompany the text. Appropriate for ages 5-10 (amazon.com has it)
- The World of the Caribou by H. John Russell - This book studies the caribou through words and many great photographs. Intended for an adult audience it is still interesting for children 11 and older. (amazon.com has it)
- Arctic Babies by Kathy Darling - Great photographs of many young animals of the wild arctic, along with text describing each creature and its habits, plus information about the arctic environment is interesting for ages 4-8. (amazon.com has it)
- The Wild Christmas Reindeer by Jan Brett - This fictional story of one of Santa's elves given the task of preparing the reindeer for Christmas Eve has a moral about kindness and patience to teach. Wonderful for children ages 3-9. (amazon.com has it)
- Olive, the Other Reindeer by Vivian Walsh - A comical tale about a dog named Olive, who misunderstands the traditonal song of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" as a calling for her to serve as one of Santa's reindeer. Fun for children ages 3-8. (amazon.com has it)
- Caribou & Reindeer Rangifer tarandus by the Smithsonian Institution includes information about the differences between reindeer and caribou, their characteristics, habits, and involvement in the lives and society of people.
- Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board has facts, maps, and lots of information about Caribou herds in their region. It also has some answers to common questions that pique peoples' curiosities.
- Woodland Caribou by Ray Rasmussen - this site makes it obvious that while many types of reindeer are living in happily in great numbers other types are endangered and could become extinct unless steps are taken to help preserve their kind. Including facts and information about the woodland reindeer this site describes the risk we all take if something is not done to help this creature.