Reindeer are called caribou in North America, and they look a little different from the reindeer in Europe and Asia, but they are all known by the scientific name of Rangifer tarandus. Also, they all like to live in the Arctic and Subarctic, where the weather is pretty darned cold. Some people who live in those regions hunt reindeer, or they keep them as domestic animals to pull sleds and provide milk, meat, and skins.
There are a lot of reindeer around, so we don't have to worry about them going extinct. But a long time ago, in the Pleistocene era, there were even more reindeer in the world, and you could find them living as far south as Nevada, Tennessee, and Spain. Nowadays most of the reindeer live in Scandinavia, Greenland, Alaska, and Canada. Except for the nine that live with Santa at the North Pole.
|Caribou live in the green part and reindeer in the red part.|
There are several different colors of reindeer fur. The reindeer that live farthest north, such as the Peary caribou, have the whitest fur, and they are also the smallest type of caribou. Further south, the Woodland Caribou are the largest and have the darkest fur.
Like other kinds of deer, reindeer grow antlers, and usually both sexes have them. The males have bigger antlers than the females. Old males lose their antlers in December, young males in the spring, and females during the summer. Reindeer have the largest antlers of all deer. Only moose have bigger antlers.
Reindeer have special noses that are built with lots of surface area inside their nostrils. This makes it so that when the cold air comes inside their noses, it is warmed first before it goes on to their lungs. And then when they breathe out, the moisture in their breath is condensed, so that it keeps their mucous membranes from drying out.
|A very cute girl and a very cute reindeer calf in Mongolia|
Another thing that's special about reindeer is their hooves. In the summertime, their footpads get spongy, which makes it easier to walk on the wet, soft tundra. But in the winter, the footpads get small and tight, so that the edge of the hoof has traction on the ice and snow. Also, this helps the reindeer dig down in the snow to find reindeer moss, which is the lichen they most like to eat. In the summer, they also eat willow and birch leaves, sedges, and grasses.
The mating season for reindeer is from late September to early November. The males get into big fights about who will mate with which female. They use their antlers to fight with, and the males who are the most dominant might get to mate with 15-20 females. The calves are born in May or June. After 45 days, they can graze on their own, but they usually continue suckling until autumn.
Reindeer have a lot of predators. The calves seem to be especially yummy, and they are favorite meals of golden eagles and wolverines. Brown bears and polar bears will eat reindeer of any age, and so will gray wolves. Reindeer can usually outrun the bears, but wolves are faster. A pack of wolves might follow the same reindeer herd for several months and just catch one to eat whenever they get hungry.
North American caribou migrate farther than any other land mammal. They sometimes travel 3,100 miles in a year, covering 390,000 square miles. In Europe, some types of reindeer migrate, but they don't go as far. Caribou travel between 12 and 34 miles a day when they are migrating, and since they can swim really well, they will cross any lakes or rivers that get in their way. They can run at speeds of 37 to 50 mph.
I don't know who first decided that Santa Claus traveled around in a sleigh with flying reindeer. Maybe if I did enough research, I could figure this out, but I'm not going to do the research right now. What I do know is that Santa's reindeer first got their names in 1823 when a man named Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem called A Visit from St Nicholas. To be honest, I think it would be kind of scary to have a bunch of reindeer landing on the roof and a fat man coming down the chimney. So I would rather just get my gifts from Mom!