Fun Reindeer Facts You Should Know
’Tis the season when reindeer get lots of attention, but mostly in their fictional form. The real animal doesn't fly or have a red nose that lights up — but it does have some remarkable qualities that are much more useful for getting through the long arctic winters. We got the scoop on real-life reindeer — also known as caribou — with the help of Glenn Stout, a biologist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Reindeer and caribou are basically the same animal (there are seven subspecies). In Europe, they're all called reindeer, but in North America, the wild ones are called caribou and the semi-domesticated are referred to as reindeer.
Reindeer are native to the arctic and subarctic regions of the world. They are found in the wild in Russia, North America, Iceland, Greenland, Norway and Finland. Large wild herds can number between 50,000 and 500,000 animals; some small herds in Alaska, however, have only 200 or 300 reindeer.
Wild reindeer migrate between summer and winter ranges, which may be several hundred miles apart, and they don't travel in a straight line, so they end up walking much farther than that. Scientists have recorded them traveling more than 3,000 miles per year, the longest distance of any terrestrial mammal.
Reindeer have been semi-domesticated for 2,000 or 3,000 years. Reindeer herders depend on their animals for food, clothing and milk and also for transportation — they do pull sleds, but, unlike Santa's, only on solid ground.
Domestic reindeer look and act differently from their wild relatives. They're chunkier in shape than wild reindeer, who are designed for long migrations. And their herd behavior is different — when startled, caribou will scatter and run, but domestic reindeer will bunch up instead.
Reindeer are well equipped for life in the cold and snow. Unlike most deer, which have narrow hooves, reindeer have broad feet that act like snowshoes and help them dig into the snow for food. They also have fur that extends across the pad of their hooves, which gives them better traction.
Reindeer have an outer coat of hollow guard hairs full of air; it acts as insulation and makes them buoyant. They're very good swimmers and may migrate across large and fast-moving bodies of water.
Reindeer get through the harsh winters when nothing else grows by eating lichen, something few other animals do. Lichen is the crinkly-looking stuff you may see growing on rocks, made up of a symbiotic relationship between algae and fungus. There are also branchy and tufty kinds and some that grow in soil, including one called "reindeer moss" that's particularly important to the animals' diet.
Reindeer are the only type of deer in which both males and females grow antlers. Antlers are shed and regrown every year; most reindeer shed them in the winter, but a pregnant female will keep them till after her calf is born in the spring. This helps her compete for the scarce food that she needs for her offspring to develop.
Reindeer calves can run for several miles within a few hours of being born and may be weaned at only 1 month old. They need to be mobile quickly to avoid predators, which in Alaska include wolves and bears. Their mother's milk is some of the richest of any mammal — 20 percent fat, compared to 5 percent for a cow.
Reindeer's eyes change color with the seasons: In summer, they are golden, and in winter, they are blue. What changes is the tapetum lucidum, the layer in the back of the eye that makes a cat's eyes reflect light at night, and scientists think it's caused by the fact that their pupils are permanently dilated during the long, dark arctic winters.
Finally, there's this: Reindeer do drugs. They like to eat the fly agaric mushroom, which has hallucinogenic properties. It's said that the local shamans learned from the reindeer to eat these mushrooms to have visions. Some even suggest that this is how we got the tradition of Santa's flying reindeer!
For more fun facts about Santa's reindeer, visit the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website.