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Eight Interesting Facts About Reindeer

by Oceanwide Expeditions Blog

When most people think of reindeer, their thoughts instantly turn to Christmas and visions of these thick-furred creatures pulling a sleigh across the nighttime sky.
Eight Interesting Facts About Reindeer

Regions: Arctic

Destinations: Svalbard

Highlights: Svalbard Reindeer

Eight things you might not know about reindeer

When most people think of reindeer, their thoughts instantly turn to Christmas and visions of these thick-furred creatures pulling a sleigh across the night sky.

Although this is not something you're likely to encounter on an Arctic trip, it is possible that you'll see a few of the more down-to-Earth reindeer species. Until that day comes, here are eight facts about reindeer (in their many varieties) that are sure to pique your interest.

1. Reindeer can be found in most Arctic areas

Also referred to as caribou, reindeer are a member of the deer family and live in the tundra regions of the Arctic. Reindeer can also be found in the far north of North America, Russia, and the sub-Arctic regions of Scandinavia.

We most often see reindeer in Svalbard, and in fact that area has its own distinct species of reindeer. We also sometimes see reindeer in Northern Norway.

2. Cartoons rarely do reindeer justice

Reindeer are typically bulkier than they've been depicted in cartoons. Adult males weigh around 159 -182 kg (350 - 400 pounds) and females 80 -120 kg (176 - 264 pounds).

Adult female reindeer are slightly smaller, but they also have a very unique physical characteristic: They're the only females in the deer family to have antlers.

Male reindeer, meanwhile, can develop antlers with up to 44 points, and they might become as large as 1.4 meters long (4.59 feet). This means that the antlers of a large, fully-developed male have the potential to be taller than the rest of the reindeer’s body.  

Reindeer fur also changes color with the seasons. If you take a Svalbard cruise during the summer, keep an eye out for brown fur. If you visit during the fall or spring, you'll see the white fur help reindeer blend into the environment.

3. There's more than one type of reindeer

There are two main types of reindeer: forest reindeer and tundra reindeer. (Some people also refer to the forest reindeer as woodland reindeer.)

Interestingly, tundra reindeer migrate between the forest and tundra on an annual basis, and in some areas there are as many as 500,000 tundra reindeer that make this trek each year. Forest reindeer, on the other hand, are not nearly as well-populated in any area of the world.

Regardless of the type of reindeer you see, all will have distinctively deep-cloven hooves. This makes it easy for the reindeer to navigate through multiple types of terrain, including soft ground and land that's covered by snow.

Both reindeer types are equally adept at swimming, which gives them an advantage when migrating and navigating offshore.

4. The reindeer diet is highly variable

The standard diet of a reindeer changes throughout the year. They typically dine on green leaves, grass, mushrooms, and sedges during the summer.

During the winter, reindeer experience a reduction in their metabolic rate, and this alters their dietary needs. Reindeer often exist almost solely on lichens throughout this season, requiring far fewer calories than in any other season.

5. Herding area affects how reindeer group up

The area where a reindeer herd is found can have a profound impact on whether or not they spend time in a group. For example, forest reindeer found in America and Eurasia generally spend the majority of their lives within a 500-square-km (190 square miles) area, and they often stick to small family groupings that contain no more than 13 members.

Tundra reindeer, however, spend most of the winter spread out into very small groupings, or they may even spend most of their time alone. In the spring, these reindeer join back together with a bigger herd for migrating.

6. Reindeer have been around for a really long time

Reindeer fossils have been found that date back to the Pliocene Epoch, which means reindeer came into existence at least 2.6 million years ago.

Anthropologists have also determined that reindeer were commonly hunted throughout southern Europe during the Stone Age, and then again in New Mexico approximately 11,700 years ago. The reindeer range, therefore, was once much larger.

7. A famous Christmas poem started the flying reindeer myth 

The 1822 poem, “The Night before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore, is credited with being the first appearance of Santa Claus’ sleigh and the magical reindeer that pull it. Native Saami people of Norway, however, were herding reindeer for thousands of years before Moore’s poem was published.

Reindeer were brought to Alaska for the first time in 1898 by Sheldon Jackson. The Saami, Jackson, and the U.S. government temporarily joined forces to herd 600 reindeer to Alaska with the intention of providing the Inuit people with a new source of food.

By 1926, reindeer were thriving in Alaska. Around the same time, businessman Carl Lomen conceived the idea of using reindeer as part of the Macy’s Christmas parade. But rather than wanting to make reindeer a cultural icon, Lomen's goal was to convince people to eat the animal and wear its fur.

The first parade worked so well that it was replicated throughout the country. Reindeer meat did not catch on, though, and in 1937 the government made it illegal for non-indigenous people to own the animals. This decision was reversed in 1997, but by then reindeer had become firmly entrenched in Christmas tradition.  

8. Svalbard has its own species of reindeer

Reindeer have been a major member of Svalbard's ecosystem for thousands of years and are the most common of the 17 mammal species prevalent there. Moreover, it's not unusual to see reindeer in downtown Longyearbyen.

Svalbard reindeer are the smallest of the reindeer subspecies, with males averaging around 65 - 90 kg (143 - 198 pounds) and females 53 - 70 kg (117 - 154 pounds). This makes them roughly half the size of other reindeer types, though Svalbard reindeer are hardly self-conscious about that.

And because these reindeer are the only large grazing mammal in the high Arctic of Europe, they're great for studies on the introduction of pollutants to the Arctic.

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