What iconic creature can pull sleighs, see with superhero talent, and shape whole ecosystems?
A very special deer
The majestic reindeer is a member of the deer family found in Arctic forests and tundra. Native to Scandinavia and Northern Russia, they were later introduced to Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Iceland. Their species, Rangifer tarandus, includes both reindeer and caribou, but the caribou population are native to North America, where they live in the wild and migrate over long distances. Some use the term ‘reindeer’ for domesticated populations, but there are actually both wild and domestic herds of reindeer. They tend to be smaller and stockier, thanks in part to their long history of relationships with humans.
Reindeer are the only type of deer for which both males and females grow antlers. They also have the largest and heaviest antlers relative to their body size across all deer species. These mighty appendages grow up to 51 inches (130 cm) on males and 20 inches (50 cm) on females. Each reindeer actually loses its antlers and grows them back every year. Males shed their antlers around November, while females keep their antlers until May, when calves are born. As many people have observed, it stands to reason that the antlered reindeers who pull Santa’s sleigh on Christmas night must be females. Let’s hear it for girl power!
The iconic antlers of the reindeer are used for multiple purposes. Males use their larger antlers to defend from predators and to impress potential mates. Females use their antlers to dig through snow and find food in the ground.
Reindeer are herbivores (plant-eaters only) and ruminants, or large-hoofed grazing mammals with specialized digestive structures. Ruminants, like cattle, goats, and deer, have four-part stomachs, and extract the nutrients from their plant-based food by fermenting it in one of the stomachs with the help of microbes. A reindeer’s diet consists of moss, herbs, ferns, leaves, grasses, and tree stems. In the winter, when food is scarce, they have to work harder for their food. During this time, they add lichen, a composite organism arising from a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae, to their diet. Reindeer dig through snow using their antlers, hooves, and noses to unearth food sources. They tend to eat five to fifteen pounds of food per day, though it’s tough to meet this quota in harsh winter conditions.
One aid in spotting food is some super-powered vision. Studies show that reindeer can see UV light, which may help them survive in the bright and UV-rich Arctic. UV, or ultraviolet light, is just outside the range of light visible to humans, with shorter wavelengths and higher frequencies than what we can perceive. UV light can harm our eyes, but reindeer appear to be protected from such damage, and can use UV light to detect food sources or lurking predators in their snow-covered habitats.
Connection to Christmas
Reindeer were first connected to Christmas in 1823, when Clement Clark Moore published his famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”. Though it’s nearly 200 years old now, the poem and its imagery have stuck. You may have heard the opening lines quite a lot recently: “Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house / Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…” In it, he mentions eight tiny reindeer, generally depicted with antlers intact. However, the beloved Rudolph is not actually in this poem, but instead comes as a later addition to the Christmas canon.
On the other hand, the pack pulling Santa’s sleigh is certainly not a new invention. Reindeer are thought to have been domesticated anywhere from 3,000 to 7,000 years ago by Arctic peoples in Northern Eurasia. They’re the only type of deer that is widely domesticated, and they are used as pack or draft animals in addition to being raised for milk, meat, and hides. Though they haven’t been known to fly, reindeer can run quite fast, with adults reaching speeds up to 50 mph, and swimming at 4 to 6 mph.
Reindeer are highly social animals. They stay in herds that can range from ten to hundreds of animals, and communicate vocally using snorts, grunts, and hoarse calls. In Springtime as they prepare to migrate, they get together to form “superherds”, which can have sizes of 50,000 to 500,000 reindeer. Talk about a crowd!
Connection to the Sámi people
Reindeer and their ranging habits affect whole ecosystems, and among the creatures who have come to benefit from their presence are us humans. In particular, the Indigenous Sámi people of Northern Europe, who inhabit Sápmi (or Lapland), a region spanning parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, have a very special relationship with the reindeer of those lands. For hundreds of years, Sámi have been living alongside the reindeer, undertaking traditional reindeer herding as far back as the 17th century, and domesticating a few draft animals and living off of meat and clothing from wild reindeer populations before then.
Indeed, the Sámi way of life revolves around reindeer. The traditional reindeer herding they practice is tied to the patterns of the seasons and the conditions of the environment. It is passed generationally among families, learned through experience as a herder comes to know the animals of the herd and respond to their needs. Unfortunately, the Sámi have been forced to struggle against impeding land restrictions, the cultural erasure of colonization, and hostile policies from the governments of the countries they inhabit. As mining and logging operations expand, there is less and less land for reindeer to graze, while at the same time warming conditions force reindeer to range larger areas to get adequate food.
The importance of ranging animals
The tundra and forests of the North that are home to reindeer need these animals’ presence just as much as they need their habitat. But warming conditions are threatening the tundra, the reindeer, and the Sámi way of life. The Arctic is warming faster than other areas of the planet, and the dramatic temperature increase is changing the quality of snow, making winter food less accessible to the reindeer.
Reindeer play a key part in keeping the Arctic cool and maintaining the ecosystems’ makeup. The reindeers’ grazing keeps trees and tall shrubs from taking over the tundra, allowing the small native Arctic plant species to survive and keeping the tundra from transitioning to warmer woody terrain. The animal impacts on the land also help maintain permafrost by trampling snow into a thin, dense layer that freezes deeply and helps snow cover stay for longer in the year. Intact permafrost also keeps microbes in the soil dormant, staving off the massive release of methane and other greenhouse gases that they would bring.
Reindeer grazing is an important part of the nutrient cycling in these regions. In the same way that donkeys can help regenerate arid Australian landscapes and holistic managed grazing can improve soil conditions from Zimbabwe to Texas, these Arctic megafauna are crucial to keeping nutrients and biomass moving through their environments. Reindeer are remarkable animals working hard to adapt to the changing climate. Read more on the Sámi and reindeer on the frontlines of climate change here, and check out Judy Schwartz’s excellent book The Reindeer Chronicles – Chapter 4 goes into detail about the ecological and cultural rights struggle of the Sámi. She presents some truly inspiring stories on the power of restoration and the role that all of us inhabitants of Earth, reindeer and human alike, can play in taking care of our home.
Off to trample some snow!
By Maya Dutta