by Whit Gibbons

December 27, 2009

Each year around Christmas, I receive questions about reindeer. The following are some I received recently.

Q. Are reindeer real and can they fly? My know-it-all brother says they are not even a real animal.

A. Absolutely, reindeer are real. As real as caribou. In fact, by some scientific accounts, reindeer are the same species as the caribou that lives in North America. Reindeer live in Eurasia. Both are animals of the Arctic tundra and belong to a group known as the even-toed hoofed animals. They are more closely related to pigs, cattle, buffalo, and goats than to the odd-toed mammals that include horses, zebras, and rhinoceroses. But among even-toed mammals, 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 are even further distinctive in that the females as well as the males have antlers. As far as I know, reindeer only fly in books, pictures, and people's imaginations.

Q. How many kinds of deer live in the United States?

A. Including the caribou, five U.S. species are in the deer family--mule deer, whitetail deer, elk, and moose. Although caribou are mainly in the Arctic regions of Canada where the ground remains permanently frozen, a few are still found in northern Idaho, and large numbers live in Alaska.

Q. Do people hunt reindeer?

A. Whereas caribou are still wild animals sought by hunters, reindeer are domesticated throughout much of their range in Europe and Asia. In fact, the reindeer is the only member of the deer family that has been successfully domesticated, providing not only meat but milk and cheese as domesticated cattle do in other regions. Reindeer are also used to pull sleds, an obvious starting point for stories about Santa's flying team. They are probably hunted some places, because some hunters will hunt anything that moves, but their greatest contribution to humans is through their services as domesticated animals.

Q. Do reindeer migrate the way caribou do in Canada? If so, why do they move such long distances?

A. Wild reindeer and caribou are both noted for forming larger herds than other species of deer and for making long-range migrations over the course of a year. Both their herding tendencies and their constant travel are a necessity. During winter they must move continually through the snow fields of the Arctic to find food. Beneath the snow, which they clear away by pawing with their hooves, they may find grasses, mosses, and lichens, which are also known as reindeer moss. A large herd can quickly deplete the available forage in an area and must soon be on the move again to find more food.

The advantage of forming large herds is in part a protection against their most common natural predator--wolves. A caribou or reindeer traveling alone would be easy prey for a pack of wolves. But predators have more difficulty surprising an enormous herd as it moves through the frozen northlands. The many eyes, ears, and noses provide an early-warning system for escape. Wolves usually concentrate their attacks on stragglers that are sick or weak.

Q. Caribou migrate, so what happens to the babies that get born during migration?

A. Wild reindeer and caribou mate in the fall, with the males engaging in contests in which they use their antlers as weapons. Although both sexes have antlers, males' antlers are proportionately larger. As with many other hoofed animals that live in open areas where large predators pose a hazard, a newborn reindeer or caribou is ready to move soon after birth. Caribou have their young in late spring, and a healthy baby is on its feet and able to keep up with a moving herd within an hour after birth.

This final question has nothing whatever to do with reindeer, but I did, for some reason, receive it last week.

Q. What do a chicken and a turtle have in common?

A. Both are vertebrate animals that lay eggs, and both cross roads to get to the other side.

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