For most of us, Yuletide is the season when reindeer become a topic of conversation. But reindeer populations have been declining recently because of climate changes. In fact, the last three decades have seen numbers plummet by 60% due to global warming disrupting the natural habitats of reindeer. Their decline poses a threat to the “normal function of northern ecosystems,” according to President and Senior Scientist Justina Ray of nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society-Canada. Ray continued to state: “With their huge range requirements and need for intact landscapes, these animals are serving as the litmus test for whether we will succeed in taking care of their needs in an area that is under intensifying pressure.” Several subspecies of reindeer are now on the brink, while still others have already gone extinct.
Not widely known is that reindeer are in fact caribou, and have been domesticated in such arctic (and subarctic) regions as Scandinavia and Siberia as early as between 3000 and 7000 years ago. They have had a long history of helping to pull sleds, and have thereby figured into many tales associated with winter transportation in more northerly countries. They were first introduced to North American Inuit tribes as a herd animal because the whale pod populations in the region were declining. As herd animals, reindeer were valuable for their meat, milk, fur, and help with transportation and hauling. They might have antlers, but reindeer are in fact very gentle, which was why they have been relatively easy to tame. Some owners have even reported that their reindeer have been known to gently take feed from their owners’ hands in such way that their delicate movements feel almost like soft velvet kisses.
Surprisingly, reindeer are a very wide-ranging migratory group! Even the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the international authority on the conservation status of a species, has documented caribou [reindeer] movements of up to 3000 miles in a year, making them the terrestrial mammal with the record longest migratory movement. Of course, their ocean counterpart, the humpback whale, with its 5000 miles a year journey to and from breeding grounds still “holds the record for the longest mammalian voyage,” but the caribou [reindeer] migration is still a respectable journey. Perhaps this explains why it can be almost believable that reindeer help Santa on his journey around the world on Christmas Eve.
Interesting as well, is that despite their slow walking rate, reindeer can gallop quite fast. According to the San Diego Zoo, reindeer have been known to clock as much as 50 miles per hour! Compare that to the top speed of a human at 28 miles per hour, a kangaroo at 30 miles per hour, a greyhound (the fastest canine) at 39.5 miles per hour, an ostrich (the fastest bird on land) at 40 miles per hour, and a quarter horse at 47 miles per hour—–it’s no wonder even Santa recruited them to help him with his annual Christmas drop! Reindeer racing has even become a staple of winter activities in Alaska, Russia, Lapland (Finland), Sweden, and Norway—–all of which gives new meaning to the term “reindeer games,” naturally.
Besides that, reindeer have unique physiology! For one, both the male and the female reindeer grow antlers—–and, they’re the only deer species to do so! Of course, it is a curiosity that male reindeer lose their antlers before Christmas (for they shed them at the end of the mating season in early December), whereas female reindeer keep their antlers throughout winter. In other words, Santa’s sleigh with his antlered reindeer are more than likely female reindeer—–UNLESS, Santa “fixes” them, because neutered ‘steer’ reindeer keep their antlers longer than ‘bull’ reindeer do. However, if Santa did choose an all-female team of reindeer it could be because males tend to lose their fatty stores during the mating season (leaving them with only 5% body fat around Christmastime); on the other hand, female reindeer maintain 50% body fat in winter, thus enabling them to remain warm by comparison for Santa’s annual gift run.
Still, it is fascinating how reindeer physiology has the ability to handle the cold. For instance, they have the ability to restrict blood flow to their extremities. At about negative 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, the blood vessels in their legs constrict so that their main body core, or torso, remains warm. Hence, while their core temperature can “stay a normal 101.5 degrees F,” their lower legs can be at a much reduced temperature range. Reindeer have evolved to handle cold weather in such fashion that it in fact is thereby harder for them to survive in warm weather! More particularly, reindeer do NOT have sweat glands (much like canines)—–which is why global warming has drastically reduced reindeer numbers.
Reindeer are also equipped to survive in cold because they have two kinds of hair. The hair closest to their skin is fine and wooly, whereas their outer layer functions more like guard hair, because they tend to be long, slender, and hollow. The combination of hair layers holds their body heat better and prevents heat from escaping so that they remain insulated. Plus, the hollow outer hair layer provides added buoyancy for the reindeer, thus giving them the ability to float. They might not fly in real life, but they sure can swim!
Still another fun factoid about reindeer is that they DO make a “click, click, click” sound, but it isn’t from “hard hooves striking a wooden roof.” Rather, at about their first year, a special tendon forms in the heel, and it tends to slide over bone; when it does, it makes the distinctive “clicking” sound. It’s been said it was an evolutionary development to help the herd “hear each other as they walk through a blizzard.”
Of course, like their cousins in the deer family, reindeer are herbivores, and even have quad-chambered stomachs like cattle. Unfortunately, they don’t have top front teeth, so they can be quite picky when eating. However, their sense of smell is rather acute, enabling them to detect food hidden beneath the snow, such as lichen (also known as “reindeer moss”). Lichen provide much-needed energy to reindeer since lichen are high in carbohydrates. Sadly, changes to their diet can make reindeer sick, which is why the effects of global warming on the tundra flora affects the feeding habits of reindeer.
As early as 2008 – 2009 a team from Canada’s University of Alberta, comprised of biologist Mark Boyce and graduate student Liv Vors, reported reindeer to be “a dying breed” after completion of the first global review on the status of reindeer. Boyce and Vors reported that climate change alarmingly affects reindeer populations because: “(1) Earlier spring green-ups occur before migrating herds arrive north, and this deprives mothers and calves of quality feeding; (2) Warmer summers cause increased insect activity, harassing animals and affecting their feeding; and (3) The impact of more freezing rain in place of snow has negatively impacted the lichens that they feed on during colder months.” Consequently, Boyce and Vors lamented that the future of reindeer populations “is dubious if climate change and habitat disturbance continue at their pace…..We do not know how quickly they can adapt to this changing world.”
Image featured is original artwork by Mariecor Agravante.