COULD RUDOLPH BE A GIRL'S NAME?

by Whit Gibbons

December 21, 2014

Holiday time is once again upon us. And whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Three Kings Day, all of the above or none of them, you will almost certainly share one common bond with your fellow man and woman: Sometime before the end of December, you will hear a rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” In recognition of that fact, I have reprised a holiday column from many years ago.

Singing cowboy Gene Autry probably did not believe his own words in 1949 when he sang that Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer would “go down in history.” Small wonder since the song remains the only one in musical history to be No. 1 on the charts one week and not played at all the next. If Autry were alive today, he would also be surprised at the suggestion that Rudolph may be a female reindeer.

Despite continuing threats to small wetlands, challenges to the Endangered Species Act and debates about global warming, ‘tis the season to be jolly, and Santa Claus will soon be on his way. Let us, therefore, set the record straight about the gender of Santa’s most famous reindeer.

First, according to some scientists, reindeer and caribou are the same species, but “Rudolph the red-nosed caribou” might never have made the pop singles chart. Reindeer 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.

All deer belong to a mammal group known as even toed hoofed animals, which includes pigs, cattle, buffalo and goats. And let us not forget the biggest of them all, the hippopotamus. 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 have another distinctive characteristic females, as well as males have antlers, leading some iconoclasts to the heretical idea that Rudolph is a female.

The issue has arisen because female reindeer characteristically keep their antlers all year whereas males, like other deer, shed them and grow new ones prior to mating season. But before we bring about a metaphorical sex change in Rudolph, we will do well to remember that virtually all animals display vast variability in traits, including antlers. Hence, some female reindeer actually do not have antlers, in spite of the general rule that females do. Also, the season in which antlers are dropped varies greatly. Some individuals can have antlers during almost any time of year. Wild reindeer and caribou mate in the fall, with males engaging in contests and using their antlers as weapons. They lose their antlers after the mating season. But since variations are common in nature, Rudolph can remain a male reindeer and keep his antlers until Dec. 26.

Wild reindeer and caribou are noted for forming large herds and making long range annual migrations in search of food in the form of grasses and of lichens known as reindeer moss. A large herd offers protection against natural predators wolves. Fortunately, Rudolph and his eight reindeer followers (most with androgynous names) do not have to deal with the likes of wolves, finding food in the snow or the other perils of living in the wild.

Reindeer are the only members of the deer family to be successfully domesticated. They provide meat, milk and cheese, as cattle do elsewhere. Caribou are wild animals hunted by man (another reason why Rudolph is not the red-nosed caribou). Reindeer are also used to pull sleds. You’ll have to ask Santa how they learn to fly.

Autry recorded another song in the 1940s that has become a perennial holiday favorite: “Here Comes Santa Claus.” As with “Rudolph” he probably did not expect it to go down in history either. But it has, and the jolly old elf, with his red-nosed male reindeer, will be here soon wishing everyone a Happy Christmas.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)

 

 
SREL HomeUGA Home SREL Home UGA Home