REINDEER – Rangifer tarandus


Reindeer facts: Acknowledged as the tame subspecies of caribou, this animal weighs 121 to 699.6 pounds (55 to 318 kilograms) and measures 381 to 584.2 inches (150 to 230 centimeters) long. Males can be twice as big as females. Tails are short, and coat color varies from dark brown to almost white, depending on the region. Hooves are large and broad, which assist the reindeer in swimming. Both sexes have antlers.

Geographic range: Reindeer are found throughout the upper latitudes of Eurasia and North America.

Reindeer habitat: Reindeer live in arctic deserts on Arctic Ocean islands as well as on arctic tundra (treeless region of north polar areas). They like coniferous forests of pine and larch trees where woody lichens are abundant. Forest swamps and marshlands also appeal to reindeer.

What does reindeer eat: The summer diet includes willows, birches, mushrooms, and grasses. In winter, reindeer eat dry plants, cotton grass, and mosses.

The moss is especially important because it contains a chemical that acts like antifreeze and keeps body fluids from freezing. Lichens are an important source of carbohydrates and are eaten year-round.

Behavior and reproduction: Reindeer migrate in spring and fall, sometimes covering as many as 3,105 miles (6,000 kilometers) in one year. They can travel at a rate of 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour). They live in mother-offspring pairs, herds, and gatherings. Typical herds include 2,500 to 3,000 individuals with a single leader. During migration, herds can reach 80,000 to 100,000 animals.

The polygynous reindeer breed in September and October, and fights between rival males are frequent. Victors “win” seven to eight females. Pregnancy lasts 192 to 246 days and result in the birth of one calf. Newborns are able to stand within an hour and can outrun a human within twenty-four hours. They nurse for one month and then begin grazing with the mother. Calves retain a strong bond with mothers for three months. Females live longer than males, sometimes past fifteen years. Average life expectancy for males is 4.5 years. Primary predators are wolves, brown bear, raven, golden eagle, and sea eagle. Calves often die during migration due to cold and exhaustion; 40 percent die in the first year, 30 percent in the second.

Adult males shed antlers soon after breeding, but females don’t shed them until spring. Reindeer are able swimmers and can cross water bodies that are 75 miles (120 kilometers) wide.

Reindeer and people: Native peoples of the north depend on reindeer for their survival in terms of food and skin. A number of native cultures in America, Siberia, and Scandinavia revolve around reindeer and caribou herding. Velvet antlers are used in Asian medicine.

Conservation status: Reindeer are not threatened.