Reindeer. Not Your Average Deer.
Sure, to many of us, reindeer are somewhat mythical creatures that help Santa around the world in a single night. But they are, in fact, quite real and surprisingly more interesting than we give them credit for. They’ve been around for a long, long while – since the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods when they were hunted by early humans throughout the arctic and subarctic regions. More recently, reindeer – or caribou – came as far south as Eastern Europe, Mongolia, China, and the top of the US that stretches from Washington to Maine. Today, they’re a bit more reclusive. They’re found in both the tundra and taiga (the boreal forest) in North America, Europe, and Asia.
Reindeer have bodies that are specialized from head to toe to help them survive in the far northern regions of the world. They have the largest antlers relative to their body size among any living deer species, and the males aren’t the only ones to grow them. In most of the reindeer populations, the females also grow antlers too. Theirs are slightly thinner and fall off in the summer verses December, when the males’ shed their antlers. Making Santa’s sleigh flown by a team of female deer.
The color and size of reindeer vary considerably, not just between the sexes, but populations too. Females can be anywhere from 64 to 81 inches and weigh between 180 and 260 lbs. Males are typically much larger and can be 71-84 inches in length and weigh in between 350 and 400 lbs. Obviously, these deer live in pretty cold places, so they’re kept warm by specialized coats. The northernmost populations generally have a whiter and thinner coat than their relatives further south. The Woodland Caribou is the largest in North America and has a special coat consisting of two layers of fur: a dense undercoat and a long-haired overcoat that has hollow, air-filled hairs.
But warm coats aren’t even close to the caribous’ most helpful feature. Their super big noses have turbinate bones that increase the surface area within the nostrils. That way, when they breathe, the air is actually warmed by their body heat before it enters the lungs and water is condensed from the air the expired and captured before their breath is exhaled, moistening dry, incoming air.
The winter cold is also pretty harsh on the caribous’ hooves too, which is why they change during the seasons. In the winter months, the footpads on their hooves shrink and tighten to expose the rim of the hoof which helps them break through the ice and crusted snow to find food. In the summer, these pads soften to provide traction in the mud which coats the tundra.
Reindeer also have the ability to do something that no other animal can do: see ultraviolet light. In 2011, the University College London conducted a study that revealed reindeer could see wave lengths considerably below the human threshold. This ability helps them to see things that blend into the somewhat desolate landscape of their habitat… and makes them pretty amazing. So in the future, let’s try to give these creatures some more credit than just the ability to fly a sleigh once a year.