Rudolph the red nose and a sleigh full of facts

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The iconic Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), or caribou if you live in America, is a species of mammal adapted to survive in cold extremes. Found in the northern reaches of our planet, the reindeer community is made up of a variety of subspecies. Reindeer live to be around 15 in the wild.

Distribution

Reindeer occupy northern territories in both North America, Eurasia and the high arctic. In America reindeer can be found in Alaska and Canada, as well as the most northern parts of the USA. In Europe, populations can be found in a host of countries including Russia, Norway, Finland and Iceland. In Asia, reindeer can be found in Mongolia. Whilst this represents a wide distribution, historically the reindeer had a more widespread distribution.

Biology

Reindeer are highly sociable, and can be seen in aggregates of up to half a million individuals. More often, these animals can be found in smaller same sex groups, particularly during the migratory season. migrations help to give reindeer a reputation for travelling the furthest distance of any terrestrial mammal; some individuals are thought to travel over 5,000km a year. These migrations take place over land and in water, with reindeer possessing impressive swimming abilities, aided in part by their buoyant, air filled coat.

Reindeers are herbivores, consuming a variety of plant parts. Food selection is thought to be based on nutritional value and ease of digestion. In the summer and spring food items consist of leaves and new green growth, whilst in winter plants and mats of lichen become the dominant source of food. When food is scarce in the winter, reindeer are aided by an excellence sense of smell and the ability to see ultraviolet light. Reindeer digest food through rumination- the process of ‘chewing the cud.’

The mating season typically begins in autumn, with males competing to control harems of 5-15 females. Competition takes place in the form of fights, threats and displays, with antlers being used as a weapon and to gesture. Reindeer antlers are regrown annually. Fighting can be very aggressive leading to serious injury and sometimes death. Once a harem has been secured, mating will take place (usually in October) with a single calf typically being born in the following May/June. Young feed from the mother’s milk for around 6 months.

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Threats and Conservation

Reindeer have a few natural predators including wolves and bears. Reindeer are also threatened by hunting for their fur, antlers and meat. It is for this reason that reindeer have vanished from parts of their former range including Germany and Poland. Further threats include habitat loss, hybridisation with domestic reindeer and disease. One parasite which threatens north American populations of reindeer is carried by the white-tailed deer, whose habitat range is progressing further northwards due to habitat modification. Whilst the parasite poses no threat to the white-tailed deer, it is fatal to reindeer. Climate change may also pose a threat in future by affecting the break-up of sea ice and subsequently migration routes, and through the increase in parasites.

Some conservation measures have been taken to ensure reindeer protection. The reindeer is protected in Europe by its listing on Appendix III of the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, which aims to regulate the exploitation of this species. Hunting is now strictly controlled in Norway and Russia, though poaching may still occur, and in Finland fencing has been erected to prevent the hybridisation of wild reindeer with semi-domesticated animals.

Reindeers in natural environment, Tromso region, Northern Norway

Reindeers in natural environment, Tromso region, Northern Norway

 

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Jess Webster

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