Reindeer

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REINDEER DIET

 

The harshness of reindeer habitat—frigid and ecologically homogenous boreal forests, windswept and seasonally frozen tundra—makes it all the more incredible that such massive herds of these animals can survive in these places.

While some regional variations of course exist, most reindeer rely on lichen as a food source in winter, where little else is available to them. Both woodland and tundra forms typically travel to wintering range in mature conifer forests to feast on both arboreal and terrestrial lichens. In North America, spruce woods—made up of black, white, and Engelmann spruce, depending on the ecological region—are critical winter lichen-feeding grounds for both barren-ground and woodland caribou; they’ll also rely on stands of jack pine, balsam fir, birches, and—in the case of some woodland caribou—moist forests of western redcedar and western hemlock.

During the summer, the reindeer diet is richer and more varied: They’ll graze grasses, forbs, sedges, and herbs—including toxic species like monkshood—as well as browse willows, birches, and other trees and shrubs. They’re well-known for their predilection for mushrooms. Reindeer will even scavenge dead animals, and very occasionally catch a living small creature, like a lemming. Seeking minerals, they’ll drink saltwater and lick sweat. All this suggests the benefits of feeding opportunistically and diversely in the difficult conditions of the subarctic and Arctic.

The Micmac word from which “caribou” descends translates to “the pawer,” a name appropriate to the animal: Reindeer will employ their hooves to dig feeding craters in the snow, accessing critical fodder underneath. Cows will use their antlers in disputes with other females and young bulls over prime forage during the critical late-winter and spring period ahead of calving. Calves usually nurse about a month before turning to grazing. While nursing their young, cows particularly seek out highly nutritious food sources to sustain adequate milk production. A meager diet will stress the cow and diminish the size and vigor of the calf.

If cows are physically taxed by the calving process—in the most barren of tundra habitats, they may barely be obtaining minimum nutrition as they grow and suckle offspring—the bulls have their own period of tenuous condition: the rut and its aftermath. During this time in autumn, bulls are courting cows, and will battle amongst each other as they try to maintain and defend breeding harems. The vigorous activity of reproduction and competition occupy all their energies, and they typically feed little during this period. Thus, they end up physically diminished and weakened, sometimes even wounded. Such animals are more at risk from wolves and other predators, as well as from the impending winter.

To put on the necessary bulk ahead of the rut, bulls feed devotedly on high-quality forage in the summertime, and, free of any calf-rearing responsibilities, have the liberty to fully seek it out.


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