12 Things You May Not Know About Reindeer

Just for Christmas: A Reindeer Primer

12-12-2011 // Roger Di Silvestro
Caribou, reindeer, Blair French photo

T'was the 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which begins with the famous line, “T’was the night before Christmas,” that made eight tiny reindeer into a standard Christmas symbol.

Clement Moore, who wrote the poem, also came up with the individual names for the creatures that power Santa’s sleigh—Dasher, Dancer, Prancer Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder (later Donder or Donner and meaning “thunder”) and Blixem (now Blitzen and meaning “lightning”) (both Donner and Blitzen stem from German/Dutch origins, with spelling changed over the years).

Well, if Santa Claus is going to be hauled around the globe by flying mammals, reindeer are probably as good a choice as any (bats, say 1,000 of them harnessed and responding to the command, “Dash away, dash away, dash away all,” seem a logical choice, given that they actually fly, but they probably are not going to work as a Christmas symbol).

One element of reality in the legend of the flying reindeer is that the animals are native to the northern reaches of the globe, though far south of Santa’s fabled polar retreat.

That’s about where reality ends in this context. But:
          When you’re seeking Christmas cheer,
          You may crave facts about reindeer—
so here are...

12 true things about Santa’s antlered helpers you may not know:

  1. Reindeer are called caribou in North America, and that’s what we’ll call them here. All caribou belong to one species, which is divided into about 13 subspecies (biologists don’t all agree on the number).
     
  2. This large member of the deer family lives in forest and tundra in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. A subspecies called the woodland caribou once ranged into the northern United States, showing up in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Montana and Idaho, but is now extinct south of the Canadian border except in a very limited area in the Selkirk Mountains of Idaho and Washington.
     
  3. Bull (male) caribou weigh up to 700 pounds, but typically weigh 200 to 450; cows tip the scales at 170 to 250 pounds.
     
  4. Both male and female caribou grow antlers, which mature bulls lose in winter (so Santa’s reindeer should be shown without antlers) but females keep until summer. Bulls grow the second-largest antlers known among deer species, exceeded only by those of the moose. The main beam of a bull caribou’s antler may exceed 50 inches long.
     
  5. The outer hairs of a caribou’s coat are hollow, improving their efficiency for insulation. The hollow hairs also help buoy up the animals when swimming across rivers, which caribou can do in excess of 6 miles per hour.
      
  6. Northern caribou subspecies tend to possess heavier bodies and shorter legs than do more southern subspecies—adaptations to conserving heat in frigid climes.
     
  7. Some North American caribou populations migrate more than 3,000 miles yearly, the longest known migration of a terrestrial mammal. In spring, they may move in herds of up to 500,000 animals.
     
  8. Caribou hooves are spongy in summer, helping the animals to travel over soft, wet tundra. In winter the hooves shrink, exposing sharp edges that stabilize the foot on icy surfaces.
     
  9. Caribou mate from late September to early November, with males sparring head to head for mates. Dominant males may claim up to 20 cows and will stop eating during the mating season.
     
  10. Calves are born in May or June and, in order to keep up with the herd, are up and running within about 90 minutes of birth. Despite this precocious behavior, they continue nursing until autumn even though they start grazing when about 45 days old.
     
  11. Caribou provide food for wolves, bears, golden eagles, wolverines and various scavengers, including foxes and ravens. Humans have hunted caribou since the Ice Age, and the animals are still hunted for food by various peoples across the northern tier of the globe, including the Gwich’in people of western Canada and east-Arctic Alaska, who depend on caribou that spend part of each year in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
     
  12. Old World people domesticated caribou beginning about 2,000 years ago. These animals are called reindeer and are the model for Santa’s pulling power. The reindeer pasture freely in herds, like cattle, and are used for meat, hides, milk and, yes, to pull sleds.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

 

 

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