The reindeer, known as caribou when wild in North America, is an Arctic and Subarctic-dwelling deer (Rangifer tarandus
The reindeer is widespread and numerous in the northern Holarctic Region. Originally it was found in Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Russia, Mongolia and northern China north of the 50th latitude. In North America it was found in Alaska, Canada and the northern States from Washington to Maine. In the 19th century it was apparently still present in southern Idaho. It also occurred naturally on Sakhalin, Greenland and probably even in historical time in Scotland and Ireland. During the late Pleistocene reindeer were found far south to Nevada and Tennessee in North America and Spain 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 Siberia, Greenland, Alaska and Canada. Domesticated reindeer are mostly found in northern Scandinavia, Russia and Iceland (where they were introduced by humans in the 18th century). The last wild reindeer in Europe are found in portions of southern Norway. The southern boundary of the species' natural range is approximately at 62° north latitude.
A few reindeer from Norway were introduced to the South Atlantic island of South Georgia 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.)
The weight of a female varies between 60 and 170 kg (132 - 375 lb). In some subspecies of reindeer, the male is slightly larger; in others, the male can weigh up to 300 kg (661 lb). 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, 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.
Reindeer have specialized noses featuring nasal turbinate bones 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 spongy 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 the animal from slipping. This also enables them to dig down (an activity known as "cratering") through the snow to their favorite food, a lichen known as reindeer moss.
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 sedges and grasses. There is some evidence to suggest that on occasion they will also feed on lemmings, arctic char, and bird eggs.
Mating occurs from late September or October 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. By 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. The caribou of North America can run at speeds up to 80 km/h (50 mph) and can travel as much as 5,000 kilometers a year. Migrations can number in the thousands. The most extensive migrations occur in spring and fall. During fall 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; migrating herds will not hesitate to swim across a large lake or broad river.
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 Norway, such as Jotunheimen, 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.
In absence of other great predators in significant populations, hunting is today a necessary means to control stocks to prevent overgrazing and eventually mass death from starvation. Norway is now preparing to apply for nomination as a World Heritage Site for areas with traces and traditions of reindeer hunting in Central Sørlandet (Southern Norway).
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 have been herded for centuries by several Arctic and Subarctic people including the Sami and the Nenets. They are raised for their meat, hides, antlers, and (especially formerly) also 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 caribou 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. A regular mail run in Wales, Alaska used a sleigh drawn by caribou. In Alaska, caribou 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 Bronze Age-Iron Age. 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 Union. 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 Peninsula 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, reindeer sausage is sold locally to supermarkets and grocery stores.
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.
The woodland caribou
(Rangifer tarandus caribou
), a reindeer subspecies
is listed as endangered with the US Fish & Wildlife Service.