Meet the Reindeer

by Holly Chavez Blog

Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Arctic

Destinations: Svalbard

Highlights: Svalbard Reindeer

Meet the Reindeer

When most people think of reindeer, their thoughts instantly turn to Christmas and visions of these creatures flying through the air while pulling a sleigh. Although this is not something that you are ever going to encounter while visiting the Arctic tundra, it is possible that you might see an actual reindeer in Svalbard. More commonly referred to as caribou, these mammals are a member of the deer family, and they live in the Arctic tundra. Reindeer can also be found in numerous other areas of the world, including North America, Russia and Scandinavia.

What Does a Reindeer Look Like?

Reindeer are typically bulkier than how they have been depicted in cartoons such as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” but most of this imagery appears to be based primarily around yearlings. Additionally, no one has ever reported finding a reindeer that has a red nose. The reality is that adult males stand up to 1.2 meters tall (3.9 feet) when measured at the shoulder, and they often weigh more than 250 kg (500 pounds).

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

The fur of each reindeer changes colors with the seasons. Therefore, if you were to visit Svalbard during the summer, you would want to keep an eye out for brown fur. In the winter, this fur turns to a whitish colors, which makes perfect sense from an evolutionary standpoint as it would help these creatures blend into their environment.

Types of Reindeer

There are two main types of reindeer: forest reindeer and tundra reindeer. Some people refer to the forest variety as woodland reindeer. Interestingly, the tundra reindeer actually migrate between the forest and the tundra on an annual basis. In some areas, there are as many as 500,000 tundra reindeer that make this trek each year. The forest reindeer are not nearly as well-populated in any area of the world.

Regardless of the type of reindeer that you see, they will have distinctively deep cloven hooves. This makes it easy for them to navigate through multiple types of terrain, including soft ground and land that is covered by snow. Each reindeer type is also very adept at swimming, and this gives them an advantage while migrating or navigating through forests.

Diet and Herd Practices

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 months, reindeer experience a reduction in their metabolic rate, and this alters their dietary needs. They often exist almost solely on lichens throughout this season.

The area where each herd of reindeer is found can have a profound impact on whether or not they spend a lot of time in a group. For example, forest reindeer that are 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. Meanwhile, the tundra reindeer spend most of the winter spread out into very small groupings or may even spend most of their time alone. In the spring, they do join back together with a bigger herd for the purpose of migrating.

What is the History of Reindeer?

Fossil records have been found that date back to the Pliocene Epoch. This means that the reindeer species 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 again in New Mexico approximately 11,700 years ago.

How Did Reindeer Become Associated with Christmas?

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 through the sky. In order for this fictional link to take off worldwide, though, it was necessary for reindeer to become more widely known.

People in Norway referred to as the Sami were herding reindeer for thousands of years before Moore’s poem was published, but the mammal was brought to Alaska for the first time in 1898 by Sheldon Jackson. The Sami, 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, the reindeer population was thriving in Alaska. This was when businessman Carl Lomen conceived the idea of using reindeer as part of a Macy’s Christmas parade. Instead of wanting to make reindeer cultural icons, Lomen’s goal was to convince people to eat the mammal 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 the government made it illegal in 1937 for non-indigenous people to own the animals. This decision was reversed in 1997, but by then, reindeers had become firmly entrenched in the traditions of the holiday season.  

Svalbard’s Reindeer

Reindeer have been a major member of Svalbard’s ecosystem for thousands of years. They are also the only deer species to live in the Norwegian archipelago. Additionally, there are only 17 mammal species prevalent in Svalbard, and reindeer are among the most common. In fact, it is not unusual to see reindeer in the downtown area of Longyearbyen, so your odds of seeing one while visiting Svalbard are rather high.

Oceanwide Expeditions offers cruises to some of the most fascinating areas of the Arctic and Antarctica, including Svalbard, which is also known as Spitsbergen. With shore excursions and trips that are specifically designed to follow the path of ancient Spitsbergen explorers, it is definitely possible to be on land long enough to spot a reindeer. 

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