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The reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), also known as the caribou when wild in North America, is an Arctic and Subarctic-dwelling deer, widespread and numerous across the Arctic and Subarctic.

Distribution and habitat

Large male reindeer

The reindeer is a widespread and numerous species in the northern Holarctic. Originally, the reindeer was found in Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Russiamarker, Mongoliamarker, and northern Chinamarker north of the 50th latitude. In North America, it was found in Canada, Alaskamarker (USAmarker), and the northern conterminous USA from Washingtonmarker to Mainemarker. In the 19th century, it was apparently still present in southern Idahomarker. It also occurred naturally on Sakhalinmarker, Greenlandmarker, and probably even in historical times in Irelandmarker. During the late Pleistocene era, reindeer were found as far south as Nevadamarker and Tennesseemarker in North America and Spainmarker in Europe. Today, wild reindeer have disappeared from many areas within this large historical range, especially from the southern parts, where it vanished almost everywhere. Large populations of wild reindeer are still found in Norwaymarker, Siberiamarker, Greenlandmarker, Alaskamarker, and Canadamarker, with a singular herd of approximately 50 Reindeer living around the Cairngormsmarker region in Scotlandmarker.

Domesticated reindeer are mostly found in northern Fennoscandia, Russia, and Icelandmarker (where they were introduced by humans in the 18th century). The last remaining wild reindeer in Europe are found in portions of southern Norwaymarker. The southern boundary of the species' natural range is approximately at 62° north latitude.

Southern-most reindeer: a South Georgian reindeer with velvet-covered antlers
A few reindeer from Norway were introduced to the South Atlantic island of South Georgiamarker in the beginning of the 20th century. Today, there are two distinct herds still thriving there, permanently separated by glaciers. Their total numbers are no more than a few thousand. The flag and the coat of arms of the territory contain an image of a reindeer. Around 4,000 reindeer have been introduced into the French sub-Antarctic archipelago of Kerguelen Islandsmarker.

Caribou and reindeer numbers have fluctuated historically, but many herds are in decline across their range . This global decline is linked to climate change for northern, migratory caribou and reindeer herds and industrial disturbance of caribou habitat for sedentary, non-migratory herds .

Biology and behavior

Reindeer antlers grow again each year under a layer of fur called velvet.
This reindeer is losing the velvet layer on one of its antlers.


The female varies in weight between and measures long. The male (or "bull") is typically larger (although the extent to which varies in the different subspecies), weighing and measuring in head-and-body length. Shoulder height can measure from , and the tail adds . Both sexes grow antlers, which (in the Scandinavian variety) for old males fall off in December, for young males in the early spring, and for females in the summer. The antlers typically have two separate groups of points (see image), a lower and upper. Domesticated reindeer are shorter-legged and heavier than their wild counterparts. The bull reindeer's antlers are the second largest of any extant deer, after the moose, and can range up to in width and in beam length. They have the largest antlers relative to body size among deer.

Reindeer have specialized noses featuring nasal turbinate bone that dramatically increase the surface area within the nostrils. Incoming cold air is warmed by the animal's body heat before entering the lungs, and water is condensed from the expired air and captured before the deer's breath is exhaled, used to moisten dry incoming air and possibly absorbed into the blood through the mucous membranes.

Reindeer hooves adapt to the season: in the summer, when the tundra is soft and wet, the footpads become sponge-like and provide extra traction. In the winter, the pads shrink and tighten, exposing the rim of the hoof, which cuts into the ice and crusted snow to keep it from slipping. This also enables them to dig down (an activity known as "cratering") Image of reindeer cratering in snow. through the snow to their favorite food, a lichen known as reindeer moss. The knees of many species of reindeer are adapted to produce a clicking sound as they walk.

The reindeer coat has two layers of fur, a dense woolly undercoat and longer-haired overcoat consisting of hollow, air-filled hairs.


Reindeer are ruminants, having a four-chambered stomach. They mainly eat lichens in winter, especially reindeer moss. However, they also eat the leaves of willows and birches, as well as sedge and grasses. There is some evidence to suggest that on occasion, they will also feed on lemmings, arctic char, and bird eggs. Reindeer herded by the Chukchis have been known to devour mushrooms enthusiastically in late summer.

Caribou licking salt from roadway in British Columbia
Caribou using antlers


Mating occurs from late September to early November. Males battle for access to females. Two males will lock each other's antlers together and try to push each other away. The most dominant males can collect as many as 15-20 females to mate with. A male will stop eating during this time and lose much of its body reserves.

Calves may be born the following May or June. After 45 days, the calves are able to graze and forage but continue suckling until the following fall and become independent from their mothers.


The reindeer travels the furthest of any terrestrial mammal, walking up to a year, although in Europe the animal does not migrate as far, and covering . Normally travelling about a day while migrating, the caribou can run at speeds of . During the spring migration smaller herds will group together to form larger herds of 50,000 to 500,000 animals but during autumn migrations, the groups become smaller, and the reindeer begin to mate. During the winter, reindeer travel to forested areas to forage under the snow. By spring, groups leave their winter grounds to go to the calving grounds. A reindeer can swim easily and quickly, normally at but if necessary at , and migrating herds will not hesitate to swim across a large lake or broad river.


There are a variety of predators that prey heavily on reindeer. Golden Eagles prey on calves and are the most prolific hunter on calving grounds. Wolverine will take newborn calves or birthing cows, as well as (less commonly) infirm adults. Brown Bears and (in the rare cases where they encounter each other) Polar bears prey on reindeer of all ages but (as with the wolverine) are most likely to attack calves or sickly animals. The Gray Wolf is the most effective natural predator of adult reindeer, especially during the winter. As carrion, caribou are fed on by foxes, ravens and hawks. Blood-sucking insects, such as black flies and mosquitoes, are a plague to reindeer during the summer and can cause enough stress to inhibit feeding and calving behaviors. In one case, the entire body of a reindeer was found in a Greenland shark, the only shark typically found near the North Polemarker. The population numbers of some of these predators is influenced by the migration of reindeer. During the Ice Ages, they faced Dire wolves, Cave lions, American lions, Short-faced bears, Cave hyenas, Smilodons, Jaguars, Cougars, and possibly the ground sloth [citation needed].

Reindeer and humans


Reindeer hunting by humans has a very long history, and caribou/wild reindeer "may well be the species of single greatest importance in the entire anthropological literature on hunting."

Humans started hunting reindeer in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, and humans are today the main predator in many areas. Norway and Greenland have unbroken traditions of hunting wild reindeer from the ice age until the present day. In the non-forested mountains of central Norwaymarker, such as Jotunheimenmarker, it is still possible to find remains of stone-built trapping pits, guiding fences, and bow rests, built especially for hunting reindeer. These can, with some certainty, be dated to the Migration Period, although it is not unlikely that they have been in use since the Stone Age.

Norwaymarker is now preparing to apply for nomination as a World Heritage Site for areas with traces and traditions of reindeer hunting in Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Parkmarker, Reinheimen National Park and Rondane National Parkmarker in Central Sør-Norge (Southern Norway). There is in these parts of Norway an unbroken tradition of reindeer hunting from posglacial stone age until today.

Wild caribou are still hunted in North America and Greenland. In the traditional lifestyle of the Inuit people, Northern First Nations people, Alaska Natives, and the Kalaallit of Greenland, the caribou is an important source of food, clothing, shelter, and tools.

Reindeer husbandry

Milking reindeer in the 19th century

Reindeer have been herded for centuries by several Arctic and Subarctic people including the Sami and the Nenets (Though the Moose was used first ). They are raised for their meat, hides, antlers and, to a lesser extent, for milk and transportation. Reindeer are not considered fully domesticated, as they generally roam free on pasture grounds. In traditional nomadic herding, reindeer herders migrate with their herds between coast and inland areas according to an annual migration route, and herds are keenly tended. However, reindeer have never been bred in captivity, though they were tamed for milking as well as for use as draught animals or beasts of burden.

The use of reindeer as semi-domesticated livestock in Alaska was introduced in the late 1800s by Sheldon Jackson as a means of providing a livelihood for Native peoples there. Reindeer were imported first from Siberia, and later also from Norway. A regular mail run in Wales, Alaskamarker, used a sleigh drawn by reindeer. In Alaska, reindeer herders use satellite telemetry to track their herds, using online maps and databases to chart the herd's progress.


The reindeer has (or has had) an important economic role for all circumpolar peoples, including the Saami, Nenets, Khants, Evenks, Yukaghirs, Chukchi, and Koryaks in Eurasia. It is believed that domestication started between the Bronze and Iron Ages. Siberian deer owners also use the reindeer to ride on (Siberian reindeer are larger than their Scandinavian relatives). For breeders, a single owner may own hundreds or even thousands of animals. The numbers of Russian herders have been drastically reduced since the fall of the Soviet Unionmarker. The fur and meat is sold, which is an important source of income. Reindeer were introduced into Alaska near the end of the 19th century; they interbreed with native caribou subspecies there. Reindeer herders on the Seward Peninsulamarker have experienced significant losses to their herds from animals (such as wolves) following the wild caribou during their migrations.

Reindeer meat is popular in the Scandinavian countries. Reindeer meatballs are sold canned. Sautéed reindeer is the best-known dish in Lapland. In Alaska and Finland, reindeer sausage is sold in supermarkets and grocery stores. Reindeer meat is very tender and lean. It can be prepared fresh, but also dried, salted, hot- and cold-smoked. In addition to meat, almost all internal organs of reindeer can be eaten, some being traditional dishes. [22119]

Reindeer antler is powdered and sold as an aphrodisiac, nutritional or medicinal supplement to Asian markets.

Caribou have been a major source of subsistence for Canadian Inuit.

In history

The first written description of reindeer is in Julius Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico (chapter 6.26) from the 1st century BC. Here, it is described:

Local names

The name caribou comes, through French, from Mi'kmaq qalipu, meaning "snow shoveler", referring to its habit of pawing through the snow for food. In Inuktitut, the caribou is known by the name tuttuk (Labrador dialect). In Finnish the reindeer is known as poro and in Sami poatsu.


Since 1961, reindeer have been divided into two major groups, the tundra reindeer with six subspecies and the woodland reindeer with three subspecies. Among the tundra subspecies are three small-bodied, high-Artic island forms. These island subspecies are probably not closely related, since the Svalbard Reindeer seems to have evolved from large European Reindeer, whereas Peary Caribou and the extinct Arctic Reindeer are closely related and probably evolved in high-Arctic North America.

Tundra reindeer

Woodland reindeer

  • Finnish Forest Reindeer (R. tarandus fennicus), found in the wild in only two areas of the Fennoscandia peninsula of Northern Europe, in Finnish/Russian Kareliamarker, and a small population in central south Finlandmarker. The Karelia population reaches far into Russia, however, so far that it remains an open question whether reindeer further to the east are R. t. fennicus as well.
  • Woodland Caribou (R. tarandus caribou), or forest caribou, once found in the North American taiga (boreal forest) from Alaska to Newfoundland and Labradormarker and as far south as New Englandmarker, Idaho, and Washington. Woodland Caribou have disappeared from most of their original southern range and are considered threatened where they remain, with the notable exception of the Migratory Woodland Caribou of northern Quebecmarker and Labrador, Canada. The name of the Cariboo district of central British Columbiamarker relates to their once-large numbers there, but they have almost vanished from that area in the last century. A herd is protected in the Caribou Mountainsmarker in Albertamarker.
  • Queen Charlotte Islands caribou (R. tarandus dawsoni) from the Queen Charlotte Islandsmarker was believed to represent a distinct subspecies. It became extinct at the beginning of the 20th century. However, recent DNA analysis from mitochondrial DNA of the remains from those reindeer suggest that the animals from the Queen Charlotte Islands were not genetically distinct from the Canadian mainland reindeer subspecies.

Reindeer in Christmas

Two Scottish reindeer relax after pulling Santa's sleigh at the switching on of Christmas lights

Santa Claus's reindeer

Santa Claus' sleigh is pulled by flying reindeer. These were first named in the 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas", where they are called Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder, and Blixem. Dunder was later changed to Donder and—in other works—Donner (in German, "thunder"), and Blixem was later changed to Bliksem, then Blitzen (German for "lightning"). Some consider Rudolph as part of the group as well, though he was not part of the original named work referenced previously. Rudolph was added by Robert L. May in 1939 as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer".

Heraldry and symbols

Several Norwegian municipalities have one or more reindeer depicted in their coats-of-arms: Eidfjordmarker, Porsangermarker, Rendalenmarker, Tromsømarker, Vadsømarker, and Vågåmarker. The historic province of Västerbottenmarker in Swedenmarker has a reindeer in its coat of arms. The present Västerbotten Countymarker has very different borders and uses the reindeer combined with other symbols in its coat-of-arms. The city of Piteåmarker also has a reindeer. The logo for Umeå Universitymarker features three reindeer.

The Canadian quarter features a depiction of a caribou on one face. The caribou is the official provincial animal of Newfoundland and Labradormarker, Canada, and appears on the coat of arms of Nunavut. A caribou statue was erected at the center of the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorialmarker, marking the spot in France where hundreds of soldiers from Newfoundland were killed and wounded in the First World War.


  1. Ronald M. Nowak: Walker's Mammals of the World. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999 ISBN 0-8018-5789-9
  2. Sommer R. S. and Nadachowski A.: Glacial refugia of mammals in Europe: evidence from fossil records. Mammal Rev. 2006, Volume 36, No. 4, 251-265.
  3. Europe's last wild reindeer herds in peril
  4. BBC Earth News-Reindeer herds in global decline
  5. LiveScience-Reindeer & Caribou Populations Plunge
  6. Caribou at the Alaska Department of Fish & Game
  7. Reindeer at
  8. New World Deer (Capriolinae)
  9. "In the winter, the fleshy pads on these toes grow longer and form a tough, hornlike rim. Caribou use these large, sharp-edged hooves to dig through the snow and uncover the lichens that sustain them in winter months. Biologists call this activity "cratering" because of the crater-like cavity the caribou’s hooves leave in the snow." All About Caribou - Project Caribou
  10. Field & Stream - Dream Hunts: Caribou on the Move
  11. Terrestrial Mammals of Nunavut by Ingrid Anand-Wheeler. ISBN 1-55325-035-4.
  12. The Sun, the Moon and Firmament in Chukchi Mythology and on the Relations of Celestial Bodies and Sacrifice by Ülo Siimets at 140
  13. Caribou Migration Monitoring by Satellite Telemetry
  14. at the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species
  15. Eagles filmed hunting reindeer
  16. Caribou Foes: Natural Predators in the Wilderness
  17. Greenland Shark (Somniosus microcephalus)
  18. "In North America and Eurasia the species has long been an important resource--in many areas the most important resource--for peoples inhabiting the northern boreal forest and tundra regions. Known human dependence on caribou/wild reindeer has a long history, beginning in the Middle Pleistocene (Banfield 1961:170; Kurtén 1968:170) and continuing to the present....The caribou/wild reindeer is thus an animal that has been a major resource for humans throughout a tremendous geographic area and across a time span of tens of thousands of years." Ernest S. Burch, Jr. The Caribou/Wild Reindeer as a Human Resource. American Antiquity, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Jul., 1972), pp. 339-368.
  19. Flexner, Stuart Berg and Leonore Crary Hauck, eds. (1987). The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd ed. (unabridged). New York: Random House, pp. 315-16)
  20. Peter Gravlund, Morten Meldgaard, Svante Pääbo, and Peter Arctander: Polyphyletic Origin of the Small-Bodied, High-Arctic Subspecies of Tundra Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus). MOLECULAR PHYLOGENETICS AND EVOLUTION Vol. 10, No. 2, October, pp. 151–159, 1998 ARTICLE NO. FY980525. online
  21. S. A. Byun, B. F. Koop, and T. E. Reimchen: Evolution of the Dawson caribou (Rangifer tarandus dawsoni). Can. J. Zool. 80(5): 956–960 (2002). doi:10.1139/z02-062. 2002 NRC Canada. online
  22. "The Legendary Role of Reindeer in Christmas, Jeff Westover, My Merry Christmas, accessed 27 December 2007

External links

Caribou-specific links (North America)

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