Range of North American caribou
© Simon Pierre Barrette
Reindeer crossing road sign used in Sweden
Each Christmas season we hear the story of the eight flying reindeer that pull Santa’s sleigh all over the world in one night. And don’t forget Rudolph too!
But what made Santa choose reindeer to help him accomplish this feat?
Wouldn’t elephants, with their huge flappable ears, make a better choice? Okay, there’s the weight factor, but what else makes reindeer the right choice for the jolly North Pole toymaker on his annual voyage?
Read on to learn some of the secrets of the world’s most famous deer.
Are Reindeer for Real?
While Prancer and Dancer and the gang are the stuff of legend, reindeer are not. These large deer live in northerly climes, in North America, Europe, Asia, and the Arctic. In Eurasia (and the North Pole) they are called reindeer and in North America more commonly caribou, but they are all the same species.
The wild herds of Alaska and Canada are known for their mass migrations, while large numbers of those in Eurasia are domesticated, raised for fur, meat, milk, and as work animals. Whether you call them reindeer or caribou, one thing is certain: they are physically well suited to pull a sleigh full of toys and a right jolly old elf.
Questions and Antlers
We’ve seen the pictures and we know that Santa’s reindeer—Dasher and Dancer and Blitzen and the rest—sport antlers. Does this mean that all of them (even Vixen?) are males? Not exactly—in fact, it almost means the opposite. Reindeer and caribou are unique among deer in that the females grow antlers, too.
And even more interesting is the fact that the females retain their antlers from one spring till the next, while mature males shed their antlers in the fall—and are unadorned on Christmas Eve. So Rudolph and all the reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh must be females or youngsters.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that a male reindeer with the power to fly also has the power to keep his antlers through the holidays.
The all-terrain vehicle enables humans to traverse rough, muddy, snowy, or icy terrain. The caribou or reindeer has it beat: it has an all-terrain foot. The animal’s remarkable hoof actually adapts itself to the season—becoming a sort of ice skate in the winter and sneaker in spring. The caribou of North America can run at speeds of almost 50 miles per hour and may travel 3,000 miles in a year. Luckily, the animal is helped along by its amazingly adaptable footpads.
In the summer, when the tundra is soft and wet, the footpads become spongy like the soles of tennis shoes and provide extra traction. In the winter, when snow and ice coat the North, the pads shrink and firm up, while the rim of the hoof, like an ice skate’s blade, bites into the ice and crusted snow to keep the animal from slipping. Sounds like the perfect footwear for an animal that needs to come to a flying stop on an ice-encrusted rooftop in the dark of the night!
Given its geographic preferences, a reindeer has to have a pretty warm coat. In fact, the coat has two layers of fur, a dense woolly undercoat and longer-haired overcoat. The outer coat consists of hollow, air-filled hairs that give the animal such buoyancy when it enters water that only the lower two-thirds of its body submerges. A caribou or reindeer swims with ease and good speed, and migrating herds will not hesitate to swim across a large lake or broad river. If Santa ever decides to take to the seas rather than the air, he is in good hands!
So next time you see Santa and his sleigh, remember that the story behind his reindeer is just as interesting as Santa.
Are you seeing deer this holiday season in your neck of the woods?