Reindeer

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REINDEER NATURAL HISTORY

 

The subarctic and Arctic deer called “reindeer” in Europe is more commonly called “caribou” in North America, though the legend of Santa Claus’s magic sleigh ensures the former term is widely familiar around the globe. The word caribou, according to the government of Yukon, stems from the moniker “xalibu” from the Micmac people, which means “the pawer”; this references caribou in winter digging into snow to get at forage beneath. Whatever they’re called, all these deer belong to the same species: Rangifer tarandus. But numerous subspecies exist, exhibiting a wide variety of morphological forms. Reindeer confined to remote Arctic islands, for example—like the Peary caribou of Canada’s Arctic archipelago and the Svalbard reindeer of the eponymous islands off northern Norway—are small, light-colored, and short-legged. The reindeer of subarctic boreal forest—like the Woodland Caribou of Canada and the U.S. and the Finnish Forest Reindeer of Finland and Russia—are big and dark-hued. A bull Svalbard reindeer, smallest of all subspecies, may weigh 150 or 200 pounds; a bull woodland caribou may tip the scales at 550 pounds.

Reindeer are unique from other members of the deer family in numerous characteristics. They are the best endurance runners, for one: unsurprising, considering the wide-open habitats of the tundra reindeer, where the only available response to predators is flight. Both male and female reindeer carry antlers, unlike in other deer; it may be an adaptation to the highly social lifestyle of the species, within which cows may have to assert dominance among themselves. The bull reindeer’s antlers are the largest in proportion to his body size of any deer, and are spectacularly elegant.

In the Pleistocene, when global temperatures were cooler and tundra habitat widespread at the margins of continental glaciers and alpine icecaps, reindeer ranged far south of their present-day distribution: They roamed the area of modern Spain and France, for example, and were portrayed in some of the stunning cave paintings of that time and region. Today, however, they would be considered circumboreal and circumpolar: that is, found naturally within the distribution of boreal forest (or taiga) and Arctic tundra in Eurasia and North America.

In their wild state, tundra reindeer are highly mobile, ranging between wintering and calving grounds and seasonal pastures; they conduct among the longest-known terrestrial migrations of any mammal. This wide-ranging nature is also found in domesticated herds. Most populations of woodland reindeer also make seasonal movements, though of a less extensive order.

Reindeer and People

In North America, caribou have long been a prime food source for indigenous cultures; they continue to be hunted by Indians, Inuit, and Yupik peoples from Alaska to Greenland. The barren-ground, woodland, and other subspecies of caribou in the New World have always been wild, although herding of Eurasian reindeer has been practiced in parts of Alaska since the 19th century. In Eurasia, reindeer have been long domesticated; indeed, few wild, free-roaming animals survive. From the Sami of northern Scandinavia to the Chaucu Koryaks of the Russian Far East, reindeer herders typically follow a semi-nomadic lifestyle and derive meat, milk and other products from their charges.

Mortality

Besides man, natural predators of reindeer are similar in both Eurasia and North America, though the big carnivores are somewhat more widely distributed in northern North America. Most important is the gray wolf—including the unique snow-white subspecies of high-latitude Canada and Greenland called the arctic wolf—which, hunting alone or in packs, culls the migrating herds. The barren-ground grizzly bear of northern Alaska and Canada is an important predator, too—as are, occasionally, the Eurasian and East Siberian brown bears, and American black bears in certain areas. Wolverines—hefty members of the weasel family—are known to tackle even adult reindeer, which far outweigh them, when winter snows belabor the ungulate’s movement. Golden eagles and lynx will take reindeer calves.

Tundra reindeer often synchronize their maternal schedules in mass coordinated calving—a reproductive strategy designed to overwhelm predators and ensure the survival of at least a good proportion of the new generation.

Meanwhile, hazards of topography and season are even more lethal. Snowmelt-swollen rivers regularly drown reindeer. A severe winter can easily starve them.


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