by Whit Gibbons

December 17, 2006

Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, is the only person to have stars in all five of the Hollywood Walk of Fame categories: movies, TV, sound recordings, radio, and live theater. He also had a greater impact on Christmas than any other cowboy, singing or otherwise. But when he sang in 1949 that Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer would "go down in history," he probably didn't believe it. Especially as the song remains the only one in musical history to be number one on the charts one week and completely off the charts the next. Nonetheless, Rudolph is indeed the most famous reindeer of all.

Like all deer, reindeer, belong to a mammal group known as the even-toed hoofed animals, which include pigs, cattle, buffalo, and goats. More distant relatives are the odd-toed mammals, such as horses, zebras, and rhinoceroses. Only members of the deer family have antlers that are shed each year, rather than horns that persist throughout the animal's life. Reindeer and caribou, however, are even more distinctive--females as well as males have antlers, leading to the idea that Rudolph may be a female.

Incidentally, according to some scientists, reindeer and caribou are the same species, but I'm not sure "Rudolph the red-nosed caribou" would have become a perennial holiday favorite. Those living in the Arctic tundra of North America are called caribou; those living in the same habitat from Europe to Siberia are called reindeer. Both belong to the deer family along with whitetail deer, elk, and moose.

A nonbiological difference between caribou and reindeer is that reindeer are domesticated throughout much of their geographic range whereas caribou are wild animals hunted by man. In fact, reindeer are the only members of the deer family to be successfully domesticated, providing meat, milk, and cheese, as cattle do elsewhere. Reindeer are also used to pull sleds. You'll have to ask Santa how they learn to fly.

Wild reindeer and caribou are noted for forming large herds and making long-range annual migrations. Their herding tendencies and constant travel are a necessity during winter. They continually paw through Arctic snow to find food in the form of grasses and lichens known as reindeer moss. As the herd depletes the forage in an area, it must be on the move again. A large herd offers protection against its natural predators--wolves. An animal traveling alone would be easy prey for a wolf pack, but predators have difficulty surprising an enormous herd moving over frozen terrain. Hundreds of eyes, ears, and noses provide an early-warning system, and wolves usually concentrate their attacks on stragglers that are sick or weak.

Now, about this idea that perhaps Rudolph should have been called Ruby the red-nosed reindeer. The lyrics clearly state that the other reindeer laughed and called "him" names. Nonetheless, the suggestion has been made repeatedly that Rudolph is a female.

Despite continuing threats to small wetlands, challenges to the Endangered Species Act, and the debate about global climate change, 'tis the season to be jolly. So with Santa Claus soon to be on his way let's take a look at this gender issue. The question of whether Rudolph was male or female arises because female reindeer characteristically keep their antlers through the winter. Males, on the other hand, shed them after fall mating combat and grow new ones before the next fall's mating season, as do other deer. So some people have made the argument that, come Christmas time, a male reindeer would be unlikely to have its antlers. Hence, Ruby, not Rudolph.

But variability and exceptions are rampant in the animal kingdom, and the period of time over which antlers are dropped by male reindeer varies greatly. If the drawings of Santa's reindeer that abound in children's books are correct, Rudolph may indeed be female, along with Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Donder, Blitzen, Cupid, Comet, and of course Vixen. But to categorically state that this is so would not be prudent. Perhaps the solution to this conundrum should be left to someone other than an ecologist.

In any case, the jolly old elf and his reindeer will be here soon. So in the words of another famous holiday tale: "Happy Christmas to all!"

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