12 Days of Christmas Science: Reindeers can’t really fly but their magnificent antlers make up for it.

Christmas season is Santa season and Santa season means it’s reindeer season, even in parts of the world that has never seen a real reindeer. After all, how else is St. Nick supposed to get around? Uber? Even though real-life reindeer can’t fly (and you can forget about that red nose), they’re still pretty interesting.

What’s commonly called reindeer goes by other names, depending on location. It is known as caribou in North America. Technically, reindeer are deer in the genus Rangifer and can be found in the Arctic tundra and boreal forests of Greenland, Scandinavia, Russia, Alaska, and Canada. There are two types of reindeer, tundra and forest. Each year, tundra reindeer migrate between tundra and forest in massive herds numbering up to half a million. Forest reindeer are much less numerous.

Reindeer used to be lumped into one species, Rangifer tarandus, with about 10 subspecies. In 2022, a revision of the genus elevated five of the subspecies to species.

Both male and female reindeer grow antlers. In most other deer species, only the males have antlers. Compared to their body size, reindeer have the largest and heaviest antlers of all living deer species. A male’s antlers can be up to 51 inches long, and a female’s antlers can reach 20 inches. 

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All antlers have a main beam and several branches or tines that grow from the frontal bones of the skull. Sometimes little branchlets or snags are also present. The tip of each antler is called a point. Antlers fall off and grow back larger every year. As new ones grow, the reindeer is said to be in velvet. During this time, skin, blood vessels, and soft fur cover the developing antlers. When the velvet dries up, the reindeer rubs it off against rocks or trees, leaving only the hardened, bony core.

Reindeer are in the subfamily Odocoileinae, along with roe deer (Capreolus), moose (Alces), and Chinese water deer (Hydropotes). These antlered cervids split from the horned ruminants Bos (cattle and yak), Ovis (sheep) and Capra (goats) about 36 million years ago. 

According to Wikipedia, “The Eurasian clade of Odocoileinae (Capreolini, Hydropotini and Alcini) split from the New World tribes of Capreolinae (Odocoileini and Rangiferini) in the Late Miocene, 8.7–9.6 million years ago. Rangifer “evolved as a mountain deer, …exploiting the subalpine and alpine meadows…”. Rangifer originated Late Plioicene and diversified in the Early Pleistocene, a 2+ million-year period of multiple glacier advances and retreats. Several named Rangifer fossils in Eurasia and North America predate the evolution of modern tundra reindeer… As well, many genes, including those for vitamin D metabolism, fat metabolism, retinal development, circadian rhythm, and tolerance to cold temperatures, are found in tundra caribou that are lacking or rudimentary in forest types. For this reason, forest-adapted reindeer and caribou could not survive in tundra or polar deserts.”

Humans have been hunting reindeer since the Mesolithic and Neolithic Periods. We remain its main predator in many areas. Norway and Greenland have unbroken traditions of hunting wild reindeer from the last glacial period until the present day. It is still possible to find remains of stone-built trapping pits, guiding fences and bow rests, built especially for hunting reindeer. These can, with some certainty, be dated to the Migration Period. There is some speculation that they have been in use since the Stone Age.

Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) in Port au Choix, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. (CREDIT: Ryan Hodnett)

Cave paintings by ancient Europeans include both tundra and forest types of reindeer.

Reindeer are the only successfully semi-domesticated deer on a large scale in the world. They have been an important source of food, clothing, and shelter for Arctic people throughout history and are still herded and hunted today. 

In some traditional Christmas legends, Santa Claus’s reindeer pull a sleigh through the night sky to help Santa Claus deliver gifts to good children on Christmas Eve.

The 1823 poem by Clement C. Moore, A Visit from St. Nicholas (also known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), is largely credited for the modern Christmas lore that includes eight named reindeer.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and call'd them by name:
"Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer, and Vixen,
"On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Dunder and Blixem;
"To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
"Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

The authenticity of Clement Moore as the author of the poem has been a subject of dispute recently. That’s a story for another day.

More tomorrow…


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