13 Dec 2013

...And Eight Tiny Reindeer

By Claire Eamer

Zeus Box Studio image
Reindeer feature prominently in the media at this time of year -- especially that very rare subspecies of reindeer that flies through the air and pulls a sled carrying a fellow in a red suit.
But more about that them later.

Most reindeer roam the forest and tundra of Scandinavia and Russia and other parts of northern Europe and Asia, as far east as eastern Siberia and northern China. There’s even a small herd of reindeer on a mountain in Scotland.

In the same kind of habitat in northern North America, you find caribou. They look like reindeer and behave pretty much like reindeer. So what’s the difference?

Essentially none, says Don Russell, a Yukon caribou biologist and founding coordinator of the CircumArctic Rangifer Monitoring and Assessment Network (CARMA), an international organization concerned with the state of the Arctic's wild caribou and reindeer.

"The reindeer is just an Old World caribou. They are the same species, Rangifer tarandus," he says. And they're the dominant large herbivore, or plant-eater, in the circumpolar ecosystem. In fact, in most parts of the North, they're the only large herbivore.

That’s not to say that all reindeer and caribou are identical. There are quite a few variations in body shape and appearance, but those variations depend more on the kind of habitat the caribou and reindeer live in than what continent they come from.

There are three general groupings of reindeer and three matching groupings of caribou. Marine reindeer and the very similar Peary caribou of northern Canada live on Arctic islands or near the Arctic coast. Tundra reindeer and barrenground caribou tend to gather in large herds and migrate across vast swaths of territory, mainly north of the boreal forest. Forest reindeer and woodland caribou live in the northern regions of the boreal forest itself, usually in smaller herds than the tundra animals.

Looks can be deceiving. These reindeer, grazing peacefully in the middle of
town on the Norwegian islands of Svalbard, are actually wild animals.
Claire Eamer photo
We tend to think of reindeer as domestic animals, but that's not always the case. True, people in Scandinavia and Russia have been keeping domesticated reindeer for thousands of years. However, one of the world’s largest herds of wild Rangifer tarandus is the Taimyr reindeer herd, which lives on the Taimyr Peninsula in central Siberia and numbers many hundreds of thousands of animals.

The caribou of North America have never been domesticated, but not because they are genetically different from reindeer. The aboriginal peoples of North America simply never felt the need to domesticate caribou. Instead, they adapted their lifestyle to fit the seasonal wanderings of the wild herds.

Perhaps the oddest member of the Rangifer tarandus tribe is the Svalbard reindeer. Russell calls it the Shetland pony of the reindeer world. Svalbard is Norwegian territory, a small group of rocky islands about halfway between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole. Isolated by hundreds of kilometres of ocean from any other land, Svalbard is home to a distinct population of reindeer, small, with short legs, snubbed muzzles, and chubby, barrel-shaped bodies.

Caribou biologist Don Russell calls Svalbard reindeer the Shetland ponies
of the Rangifer world. Their short legs and chubby bodies serve them well
on the islands of the remote Svalbard archipelago.
Claire Eamer photo

Svalbard reindeer aren't designed for speed, but they don't need to be. The only large predators on Svalbard are polar bears, and they're rarely interested in reindeer. On the other hand, those chubby bodies are important. Svalbard is a tough place to be a reindeer.

In winter, Svalbard reindeer have to eat whatever they can find. Most other Rangifer eat lichens, which are available in winter under the snow. On Svalbard, however, there are few lichens. Svalbard reindeer eat the first green shoots of sedges emerging in the spring. Through the summer, they work their way through lush tundra plants, packing on as much fat as possible. The fat has to last them through the lean times of winter when they go on a crash diet, often losing almost half their autumn weight by spring.

Meanwhile, about those flying reindeer. They seem chubby enough, but science has remarkably little to say about them. Perhaps it's the shortage of confirmed sightings. Nevertheless, given their unusual reported characteristics (flying, occasional appearance of a glowing red nose), they clearly deserve more research.

If you want to know more about wild caribou and reindeer, explore the CARMA website.

To hear from the people who depend on caribou and reindeer -- in their own words -- watch some of the videos at Voices of the Caribou People. It's a great resource for teachers and students studying life in the Arctic.

About those seasonal reindeer.... Here's a site devoted to the history of Santa Claus and his flying Rangifer team.

And the one with the unusual nose? That'd be Rudolph, eh?

Finally, remember those reindeer on a mountain in Scotland? Here they are, the Cairngorm reindeer.


Deborah Hodge said...

Great post, Claire!

The Sci/Writers said...

Thanks, Debbie. It seemed a touch timely ;-)

Tanya Kyi said...

I grew up near the Salmo-Creston summit, home to a small herd of caribou. It was rare to spot them, but a great winter treat when we did!