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Episode 8: Santa’s Favorite, The Reindeer

As we celebrate the holiday season and Santa Clause, or as others call him St. Nicholas, prepares to deliver presents to all the good girls and boys around the world, learn about his special steeds, his reindeer.  

Opening and Closing song Santa Clause is Coming to Town by The Ball Brothers

Reindeer and Caribou

Reindeer and Caribou belong to the same species (Rangifer tarandus) but are two separate sub species. Both are called Cervids, a family of deer that include the large Moose down to the small Muntjac.  Caribou are thought to have split off from Reindeer at the end of the last Ice Age approximately 20,000 years ago.

Generally, Reindeer are found in Northern Europe and Asia. Caribou are found only in North America. However, reindeer were reintroduced to North America in the 19th century and may be found there today. These animals live throughout the northern polar region of the world. It can be assumed that due to their ability to thrive in the harsh cold climate of the North Pole, the reindeer became a favorite animal to pull Santa’s sleigh.

There are 14 separate subspecies of Caribou (7) and Reindeer (7).  The smallest species, Rangifer tarandus (R.t.) platyrhyncus is the smallest reindeer found in Norway. Then, reindeer such as R.t. fennicus are found in Northern Finland and Russia. Other subspecies range across all of Eurasia to the R. t. sibiricus, which is found in Siberia. Of the 7 subspecies of Caribou, the Woodland Caribou (R. t. caribou) can rarely be found in certain portions of the lower 48 United States and are considered endangered. Other species live throughout the northern most reaches of North America with substantial populations throughout Alaska and Canada.

Physical Traits

Physically reindeer and caribou look very similar. Yet, reindeer are usually smaller. Traits for both include:

  • Coats varying in color with most northernmost animals with white pelts and more southern ranging with darker brown to grey
  • Undercoat is heavier, with outer hairs being hollow to help insulation
  • Hooves are large and concaved to help dig in the snow
  • Ability to see ultraviolet light, ability to navigate better in darkness
  • Specialized counter-current blood exchange within the lower legs and nasal passages to help cooler blood exposed to the elements warm before returning to main circulation
  • Male Caribou stand as tall as 59 in. (1.5 meters) at the shoulder, with female reindeer stand as short as 36 in. (90 cm)
  • Male Caribou can weigh up to 700 lb. (300 kg), and females can weigh up to 400 lb. (180 kg)

Antlers are an incredible adaption from the Cervid family. Antlerogenesis is the process of the growth of antlers. Each year, male Cervids grow a new pair of antlers in preparation for the breeding season. However, unique amongst all the Cervids, female reindeer and caribou also grow antlers. This rapid process begins with new bone growth that expands rapidly to as big as 53 in. (1.35 meters) across in reindeer.

After the breeding season (rut) from September to early November males will drop their antlers, well before December. However, pregnant females will maintain their antlers throughout the winter and early spring. Therefore, one could assume that Santa’s Reindeer may in fact be female since they are depicted as having antlers.

Great Migration

Some species of Reindeer and Caribou can migrate as far as 3,000 miles (5,000 km) per year. The purpose is to travel to different feeding grounds, mating grounds, and calving grounds. Some herds have been estimated to be as large as 1,000,000 animals during a mass migration in Russia. These animals can run as fast as 50 mph (80 kph). Currently, the speed at which Santa’s Reindeer can fly has not been established.

Diets will vary depending on where Reindeer or Caribou are living. In the far north, or tundra, these animals will live off grasses or plants during the growing season. During the cold of winter, Reindeer are one of the few species that can eat and digest lichen. Lichen is a composite organism of algae and fungi. In a more southern range, the taiga, the Reindeer and Caribou can eat grasses, plants and small trees. It is estimated these animals can eat up to 10 to 12 lb. (5 kg) per day.

Conservation Efforts

According to the IUCN, the conservation status of any Reindeer or Caribou will depend on the subspecies. While a decrease across the boards has been estimated to be as high as 40% across all populations in some species, overall Reindeer as classified as Vulnerable. Overall populations have decreased from an estimated 4,800,000 animals in 1990 to an estimated 2,890,000 individuals today.

There are an estimated 30,000 wild reindeer in Norway, but domestic herds may number as high as 250,000. A subspecies of Reindeer in Russia, R. t. pearsoni, is considered endangered with less than 1,000 animals. In Alaska, Caribou herds have decreased from a high of 1.1 million in 1994 to a herd of 660,000 today.

Santa’s Reindeer

The first historical mention of Santa transitioning from a white horse to reindeer was documented by Mr. William Gilley in the year 1821 from New York who noticed Santa Clause came to his town with reindeer pulling his sleigh. It was not until the year 1823 when Santa’s Reindeer were chronicled by the Troy Sentinel newspaper, where one of the writers (Clement Clarke Moore) hid out to witness Santa Clause’s visit to his home. He wrote up his observations and titled it ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas:

 ‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds;

While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;

And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,

Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.


When what to my wondering eyes did appear,

But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,

With a little old driver so lively and quick,

I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,

And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:

“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!

On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!

To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”


Organizations to Support

Wildsight Protecting Mountain Caribou

Conservation Northwest

December 19, 2017

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