BETTER ANIMAL TO REPRESENT CHRISTMAS THAN A REINDEER?
December 23, 2012
animal is inextricably linked with Christmas in the minds of young and old? Reindeer,
Christmas stories abound in literature, television specials and Hollywood movies,
so perhaps it's not surprising if some children these days think reindeer are
as fictional as the Grinch, Frosty and Rudolph. Well, reindeer are as real as
caribou; in fact, they are the same species, caribou being the North American
variety and reindeer living in Eurasia. Both are denizens of the Arctic tundra.
Caribou and reindeer are in the deer family 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.
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 more distinctive in that the females as well as the males
In addition to caribou, four species in the deer family are found in the United
States - mule deer, whitetail deer, elk and moose. Caribou thrive in the Arctic
regions of Canada where the ground remains permanently frozen, but a few are found
in northern Idaho, and large numbers live in Alaska.
caribou are still wild animals hunted as game animals, reindeer have been domesticated
throughout much of their Eurasian range. In fact, the reindeer is the only type
of deer that has been successfully domesticated, providing not only meat but also
milk and cheese as domesticated cattle do elsewhere. Reindeer are also used to
pull sleds, creating a natural association with Santa's sleigh.
reindeer and caribou are noted for forming larger herds than other species of
deer and for making long-range migrations over the course of a year. Their migratory
habits are a necessity. During winter, they must move across the snowfields of
the Arctic to find food. Beneath the snow, which they clear away by pawing at
it with their hooves, they may find grasses, mosses, and lichens (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.
advantage of forming large herds is to provide protection against their most common
natural predator - wolves. A caribou or reindeer traveling alone would be easy
prey for a pack of wolves. Predators have more difficulty surprising an enormous
herd as it moves through the frozen northlands. The many eyes, ears and noses
constitute an early-warning system for the herd. Wolves usually concentrate their
attacks on stragglers that are sick or weak.
reindeer and caribou mate in the fall, and males engage in contests, using their
antlers as weapons. Although both sexes have antlers, they are proportionately
larger in the males. 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
travel soon after birth. Caribou have their young in late spring, and a healthy
baby is on its feet and able to run within an hour after birth.
of the ecological threats to North American caribou are well known. Wolves take
their share each year; grizzly bears and lynx will attack calves in the summer.
A serious parasite common in whitetail deer has spread into caribou populations
in some areas. One speculation is that the clearing of the continental forests
forced whitetail deer farther north into the range of caribou, exposing them to
the parasite. Another cause of high mortality in some years is starvation due
to unusually long, cold winters with heavy snowfall. Sport hunting reduces the
number of caribou in some areas.
though reindeer cannot fly, this in no way precludes the existence of Santa Claus.
As young Virginia O'Hanlon was told in 1897, "Ten times ten thousand years
from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood."
you have an environmental question or comment, email