Besides their legendary sled-towing capability – even through the sky – and their need to only work one day per year led by a unique red-nosed individual… what do we really know about reindeer in the Arctic? We’re talking about Rudolph’s cousins, found around the globe a bit south of the North Pole. (Oh, bonus fact… there really aren’t any reindeer at the North Pole! Just don’t tell your kids!)
Let’s settle this little argument right now. The answer is yes … and no. Technically they are two names for the same species, Rangifer tarandus. “Reindeer” generally refers to the domesticated variety that are herded by humans and pulls Santa’s sleigh. The name “caribou” comes from the vocabulary of the Mi’kmaq, aboriginal peoples who are among the original inhabitants of the Atlantic Provinces of Northern Canada. It is pronounced hal-lay-boo, which means “snow shoveler.”
Reindeer are built for the cold! They have hollow hair that traps the air so they remain well insulated. Their noses are specially designed to warm the air they breathe before it reaches their lungs. During the winter, the hair on a reindeer’s face grows very long down to their mouth, protecting their muzzle while they graze in the snow. Finally, when the temperature is extremely cold, reindeer can lower the body temperature in their extremities to just above freezing, helping them avoid losing body heat.
With most deer, only the males grow antlers. However, this is not true for most reindeer. Although some specific populations of female reindeer do not have antlers at all, most do. During certain times of year, you can easily tell the sex of a reindeer by looking at their antlers. The simple reason is males lose their antlers in winter or spring, but females don’t shed theirs until the summer. The female antlers are significantly smaller and finer than the males, but you may get tricked up by a particularly large female or a small male. Reindeer also used to live in more southern areas
While reindeer live exclusively in the northern regions of the globe, there was a time when the earth was cooler and human hunters were not a threat to the species. Reindeer used to live as far south as Nevada and Tennessee during one of the ancient ice age periods. Whether those reindeer may have had a southern drawl is still up for debate.
This final fact is really cool. A subspecies of reindeer has knees that make a clicking noise as they walk, allowing a herd to stay together in a blizzard. They also vocalize. Scientists found that males have an air sac in their neck which they use to deter other male suitors from chasing their girlfriends. Females also have a similar air sac to communicate with their young.
When I come back from my arctic expedition the West Greenland Disko Bay, I’ll make sure to bring plenty of pictures of reindeer in their natural habitat. If I spot one with a red nose, I’ll let you know.