Running with Reindeer
December 1, 2012

It’s the holiday season again, and wintertime will soon be upon us.  I do love this time of year in New England! On our daily walks, Jupiter and I notice that the air is often crisp and cold and that we can almost smell it when it is about to snow—and I LOVE snow, at least up until January 1st, when I begin to impatiently await the arrival of springtime. Jupiter and I pass farms and fields and houses all decorated for the holidays. Today, we saw a little wooden sleigh with Santa being pulled by none other than Rudolph and eight tiny (and seemingly less significant) reindeer. So, I started to think about reindeer and began to wonder—Why is it that most of us don’t know much more about reindeer beyond the fact that they fly on the evening of December 24th?

Reindeer are a species of deer who live in the Arctic and Subarctic regions of the world. They are ruminant animals, as are cows, goats, sheep, and giraffes, meaning they are hoofed and even-toed, usually have horns (or antlers), have a divided stomach (to aid in their specialized digestive system), and chew their cud (regurgitated, partially digested food). They generally have a lifespan of ten to fifteen years in the wild. North American reindeer are called “caribou” and belong mostly to wild populations that migrate great distances, with some traveling up to 3,000 miles per year at speeds as fast as 50 mph! The European reindeer include many domesticated animals that are used for meat, milk, and hides. For our purposes here, we will call them all reindeer unless otherwise noted.

These big animals are built for bone-chilling weather! Reindeer can vary greatly in size, with the North American caribou growing much larger (at least 35% larger). Males can reach 400-700 pounds and four and a half feet in height. Females can grow to 300 pounds and three and a half feet in height. Reindeer have specially adapted fur coats that are layered and trap air for warm insulation, as well as buoyancy, which is vital when these great swimmers cross water in search of food during migrations. Reindeer have a great sense of smell and are simple eaters (though they eat a lot!), foraging mostly for lichens, leaves and fungi, and occasionally eating small eggs. Their specially-adapted noses also warm the air before it reaches their lungs and condense water in the air to keep their mucous membranes moist. Their hooves are pretty huge and almost circular, acting as paddles or snowshoes. In the summer, the hooves are softer to achieve optimal traction on dry land, while, in the winter, harder hooves are necessary to walk on snow and ice.

But my favorite feature of reindeer is that, unlike in other deer species, both males and females grow antlers, and what is most cool is that calves have antlers, too! Males grow larger antlers, but both males and females shed their antlers every year, with males shedding around December and females shedding in the spring, usually after giving birth to one or two calves.

So, what can this tell us about Rudolph? Frequently seen with antlers around Christmas time, Rudolph must either be a young reindeer, a male who happens to hold onto his antlers later into the season than other males, or actually a girl! Just something to think about this holiday season!

Happy Holidays to all!

Things you can do to help Reindeer:

1.    READ! There are plenty of books, websites, and documentaries that provide great details about reindeer including statistics, migration, current scientific studies, discussions about the importance of classifications of species, and health of populations. Read and share what you have learned with others.

2.    Create! Write stories or do artwork that captures your own personal expression about the beauty and uniqueness of these amazing animals. When you share your work, you educate others and help reindeer by bringing attention to them.

3.    Do your part to stop Global Warming! Populations of reindeer are on the decline—and some are even endangered—in large measure due to the effects of global warming. Food and habitat are decreasing, and these beautiful creatures need our help! Read all you can about global warming, and know that everything we all do matters—from turning off lights to driving smaller, more efficient cars. It all adds up.