by Meaghan English, TrueSouth Properties Wildlife Specialist
You know Dasher and Dancer and Comet and Cupid…but did you know that they are actually considered caribou in North America? Reindeer are a species of caribou that is native to Europe and thus called Reindeer. Here in the states and Canada, we refer to them as Caribou. This Christmas deer has many interesting characteristics and is greatly tied to many Inuit beliefs and mythologies. I will discuss some of these characteristics as well as their history and conservation status today.
Caribou, or Rangifer tarandus, is made up of many subspecies and populations across North America. They come in all sizes and color variations and are best known for their large antlers and wooly hair. One species, the porcupine caribou, is known as the terrestrial mammal with the longest migration (from calving grounds to wintering grounds). They will travel up to 5,000 kilometers in a year. They are quite the long distance sprinter as well. A mature caribou can reach speeds up to 50 MPH and a day old caribou can outrun an Olympic runner! That is astounding if you sit down and think about it. Along with their amazing running skills, they also have a very keen sense of smell. It is believed that they can smell palatable vegetation under snow in the winter and will use their hooves to unearth the vegetation. They have also been known to create craters in the ground looking for food under snow. Caribou stay together in large groups (thousands of individuals) to provide some relief from biting insects. They disperse from each other in the winter but will come back together in spring and summer. As seen in white tail deer, males will squabble during the rut to claim their females and keep outsiders from joining the group.
Once upon a time, the caribou was very important to many people spanning from the Inuit to the First nations. Caribou was a symbol of livelihood for these cultures and provided food as well as materials for tools and barter. Many Inuit beliefs are centered on the caribou and it is a highly valued and respected species over a very large geographic range
Caribou in the states is extinct in many northern U.S. States and is considered an endangered species due to overhunting and habitat destruction. Some species still exist in Alaska (they have double the number of caribou than people there), but other species only have 30 individuals. The largest number of caribou can be found in Alaska, Canada, and Russia but humans continue to hunt this animal. Pipelines threaten the remaining habitat available in Alaska and Canada. In total, there are about 5 million caribou left in the world. With that being said, domestic herds are thriving in North America and continue to be a very important symbol of Christmas.
I am ashamed to say that I was much older before I learned that Caribou was the American term for reindeer. I guess living in south Alabama shelters you from the magnificent animals that occupy the northern part of the country. I hope that this amazing mammal is able to overcome certain obstacles and children will value the “reindeer” for the rest of time. Let’s face it, if there are no reindeer, who will pull Santa’s sleigh??
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