Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Nature Guide: Reindeer

In his 1822 poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas, Clement Clarke Moore chose eight tiny reindeer to pull Santa Claus' sleigh because he knew they lived in the cold regions around the North Pole. In 1939 Robert L. May created Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and added him to Moore's team, giving us our modern version of Santa's transportation. Our Nature Guide Jon Latimer shares some information about the real wild reindeer, known as caribou in North America.

"The reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) is a species of deer that has adapted to life on the Arctic plains (or tundra) and nearby forest and mountain areas of North America and Eurasia. Reindeer are sociable animals, living in herds that may contain as many as 500,000 individuals. Food is scarce in this harsh environment, so reindeer herds are almost constantly on the move. They migrate in spring and fall, covering more than 3,000 miles each year, the longest migration of any terrestrial animal.

"In March or April, reindeer leave their winter grounds and move to their calving grounds. Calves are born in May or June. In fall, which is mating season, males compete to attract a harem of as many as 14 or 20 females. They spend winter forested areas and must paw through the snow to find lichens or grasses to eat. This behavior led the Native American Mi'kmaq to name them 'qalipu,' meaning 'snow shoveler.' This name was passed along by French explorers and became our word caribou.

"Their reindeer is well adapted to its cold, barren habitat. Their coat has two layers of fur, a dense woolly undercoat and longer overcoat consisting of hollow hairs. This thick overcoat traps air to provide insulation and gives buoyancy in water, allowing reindeer to swim across wide rivers during migration. Reindeer have broad hooves that change according to the season. In summer, when the tundra is soft and wet, their footpads become soft and provide extra traction. In winter, the pads harden and shrink, exposing the rim of the hoof, which can cut into ice and snow to keep the animals from slipping. The reindeer is the only species of deer in which the female has horns, perhaps to help her complete for scarce food. Antlers of both males and females are shed and replaced each year.

"The reindeer's range has decreased dramatically due to hunting and the destruction of its natural habitat by humans. But reindeer are an important resource for the people of the arctic regions. They are raised for their meat, hides, antlers and milk and used for transportation. Reindeer are not fully domesticated, however. They generally roam free and traditional reindeer herders move with their herds during their annual migration."