All About Reindeer


Reindeer and christmas decoration hand drawn with watercolor

Emily Chen, Staff Writer

Reindeer are best known as the majestic creatures that pull Santa Claus’ sleigh across the night sky on Christmas Eve. While reindeer don’t really fly, with the exception of the nine living at the North Pole, of course, they have plenty of other fascinating quirks you may not know about.

Reindeer look very different from how they are typically depicted in the media. They are not the slender, dainty, whitetail deer-like animals you may have seen on advertisements and in movies. Real reindeer look very similar to moose. They have tan fur with dark patches on their face, back, stomach, and legs. Their antlers are very thick and sturdy. Unlike other members of the deer family, both male and female reindeer have antlers. According to the San Diego Zoo, “A male’s antlers can measure up to 51 inches long, and a female’s antlers can reach 20 inches.” The antlers are shed and regrown every year. Reindeer hooves have four toes each, and are adapted to help them walk in snow.

If this description made you think of a caribou, you’re on the right track! Caribou and reindeer are in fact the same animal. As stated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, “The world’s Caribou and Reindeer are classified as a single species Rangifer tarandus. Reindeer is the European name for the species while in North America, the species is known as Caribou.” The word “caribou” was derived from the Miꞌkmaq word “qalipu”. “Reindeer” was formed from the Norse words “hreinn” and “dyr”.

In many cultures around the world, it is a tradition to leave carrots out for Santa’s reindeer alongside milk and cookies for Santa himself. While reindeer will much on carrots if they are fed to them, they would probably prefer something from their natural diet. Wild reindeer graze on lichen, moss, grasses, and other vegetation they can find in their tundra habitat.

One of the most strange behaviors practiced by herds of reindeer is the “reindeer cyclone”. When being attacked by a predator or a hunter, a herd of reindeer will sometimes run in a counter-clockwise direction. The result is a swirling, cyclone-like stampede of reindeer! The fast moving swarm confuses the attacker and makes it difficult for them to target an individual. 

Reindeer are considered semi-domesticated animals because people began to domesticate them relatively recently. Many people depended on the reindeer for milk, meat, fur, and transportation. They are still herded and hunted today.

Despite the amount of information we have about them, scientists are still baffled by the nine reindeer who reside at the North Pole. They possess the ability to fly, which physicists haven’t been able to explain due to their lack of wings. Rudolph’s famous glowing red nose is also a mystery. Some say it’s bioluminescence. Others believe he has a stuffy nose. However, the general consensus is that it’s just a case of good old holiday magic.

Graphics courtesy of 123RF.COM