You know Dasher, and Dancer, and Prancer, and Vixen; Comet, and Cupid, and Donner and Blitzen, and you certainly know Rudolph as well – but do you know that these most famous reindeer might actually be females?
Reindeer are the only species of deer where both the males and females have antlers. They are used for battling other Reindeer in the fight for food and mates. Male Reindeer lose their antlers every winter, whereas the females keep theirs until the spring so that they can challenge other females for food while they’re pregnant. A fully grown bull (the male of the species) usually grows to around 3 or 4-foot-high and can weigh up to 28 and a half stone (400 lbs). The cows (females) are a little smaller.
Reindeer are surprisingly fast; a small calf can easily outrun a human. Fully grown males and females are one of the fastest mammals on land. Longer legs on reindeer make it easier for them to move around on hard surfaces and snow, but these long legs costs them more energy for maintenance and growth. Average leg length becomes shorter the further north the species live.
They also have smart feet. In the summer their footpads become sponge-like and provide extra traction for the soft tundra. In the winter, the pads shrink and tighten, exposing the hoof rim, which cuts into the ice and snow and allows them to dig as well.
To beat the chilly winter, a Reindeer’s facial hair grows long enough to cover their mouths meaning they can avoid frostbite while rummaging for food in the snow. Reindeer noses are amazing; these appendages cool the warm air coming out of the body by 21⁰C before it leaves the body. Research has shown that some reindeer have red noses due to a high concentration of blood vessels in their nose that help them stay warm and search for food in the snow, and is particular visible on individuals with white fur. They also have a super strong sense of smell means that reindeer can sniff out food buried 60cm beneath the snow.
The hair that makes a reindeer’s coat is hollow, allowing it to trap air, which provides the cosy insulation to keep the animals warm in a frigid environment. Reindeer are great swimmers! That buoyant coat also acts as a kind of natural life jacket, and keeps them warm in the freezing waters. They swim strongly across rough, wide rivers and icy expanses of ocean. They can swim up to six miles per hour.
Researchers at University College London have discovered that reindeer are the only mammals that can see ultraviolet light. While our lowly old human vision allows us to only see wavelengths to around 400 nanometres, reindeer can see up to 320 nanometres, which include the spectrum we can only see with a black light. It helps them spot things more clearly in the blaring light of the Arctic.
Reindeer live for snow. Their bodies naturally adjust to the cold temperature by dropping the temperature in its legs so that they can keep the rest of their body more consistently warm, so they’re very comfortable in the cold and icy conditions. Summer is a tough time for reindeer. If temperatures rise above 10⁰C, this artic mammal becomes noticeably uncomfortable and if 15⁰C is reached the animals suffer physiological disorders. The short summer season allows reindeer to gain bodyweight that will allow them to overwinter; any disruptions to this will jeopardize their ability to do this.
Reindeer live on moss and lichen, especially Cladonia rangiferina, commonly known as reindeer moss. Given their harsh environment, they don’t have a lot of choices when it comes to grazing. However, climate change threatens to reduce the area of the tundra and decrease the space reindeer have for foraging mosses and lichens, particularly during calving season.
Reindeer are thought to have originated around two million years ago on the Beringia land bridge that existed between Alaska and Siberia at the time. They then moved from there further into both North America and western Eurasia. During the Ice age, some humans in Europe were depended on Reindeer for their survival. As well as being a source of food, reindeer skins were used for clothing, blankets, tents, and their bones and antlers were used for the manufacture of tools and weapons. Just how important they were can be seen in the 13,000 years old carving of two swimming reindeer. It is carved from the tip of a mammoth tusk depicts two reindeer that appear to be swimming. It was found in Montastruc in central-southern France.
However, today there are very few Reindeer living wild anywhere in the world, they have grown to be domestic animals and any that are found to be wild have usually been descended from escaped domesticated reindeer. While we don’t know exactly when Reindeer were domesticated, evidence exists that herds were owned by the chieftain Ottar from Halogoland in 9th-century Norway.