4 min read

Reindeer Christmas Magic

Merry Christmas!
Reindeers and winter. Photo by Natalia Kollegova from Pixabay

There are many connections between Christmas and the natural world, but today we'll celebrate Christmas traditions and reindeer!

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reindeer and sleigh
Pulling sleighs is one of many ancient cultural traditions based on reindeer. Photo by pasja1000 from Pixabay

Reindeer are one of the most characteristic and charismatic large animals of the Far North. There are 14 living subspecies in the world, each with their own unique appearances and home ranges, but all are considered a single species, Rangifer tarandus.

Reindeer are a unique and magnificent animal. Photo by 12019 from Pixabay

In North America, these large deer are known as "reindeer" if they're domesticated, but "caribou" if they're wild; while in Europe they're all called "reindeer."

Reindeer are best known for migrating in massive herds that flow over open tundra like living rivers as they head north to breed in the summer, and south to take refuge in forested areas in the winter.

reindeer migration
Reindeer migrations are one of Earth's most astonishing spectacles. Photo by 12019 from Pixabay

Other subspecies, known as woodland caribou, live exclusively in forests, but all wild caribou in the world, no matter where they live, face imminent threats from human activities that disrupt their ancient lifeways and migration paths.

woodland caribou
Male woodland caribou. Photo by David Moskowitz, davidmoskowitz.net

Woodland caribou are separate and easily overlooked animals whose populations are seriously threatened. Many herds have been reduced to fewer than 100 individuals (and some are down to single digits), due to logging and roads crossing their migration routes. Check out Caribou Rainforest to learn more.

Now, let's turn our attention to the depths of winter (think "Christmas") and how reindeer adapt to this time of year. First, they molt from their summer pelage to a winter coat that appears white due to abundant, hollow, insulating guard hairs. Secondly, their huge hoofs harden and shrink, leaving a projecting horny ridge that gives them a better grip on slippery ice.

woodland caribou
Caribou turn from brown to white by wintertime. Photo by Tapani Hellman from Pixabay

Another fascinating change that mystified scientists until recently is that their eyes turn from gold to blue. This transformation greatly improves their perception of UV light, which matters because reindeer spend dark winter days searching for patches of reindeer moss (the lichen Cladonia rangifera). Because lichen absorbs UV rays, while snow reflects UV rays, lichens show up as patches of black in a sea of white, which helps reindeer find food more quickly.

reindeer moss
Abundant but widely scattered lichens provide a reindeer's sole diet in the winter. Photo by Tatiana S. from Pixabay

But most people think of reindeer as the animals that haul Santa's sleigh, and this points us towards their antlers because reindeer are unique among deer in both sexes having antlers.

woodland caribou
Caribou antlers are more a signal of health and fitness than a tool for fighting. Photo by David Moskowitz, davidmoskowitz.net

Males needs antlers for the late summer breeding season, but in November and December they drop their antlers, while females keep their antlers, often into the spring calving season.

woodland caribou
Even as spring leaves begin to bud out, these four female caribou are just starting to lose their antlers. Photo by David Moskowitz, davidmoskowitz.net

Why is this, and what does it mean for Christmas? Well, the hardest part of winter is pawing through snow and ice to access buried lichens (caribou comes from a Native name xalibu, which means "pawer"). Once you've made this investment of energy you need to defend your patch, and it's believed that females use their antlers to prevent males from pushing them away from their food.

woodland caribou
Antlers are thought to play a major role in helping females survive winter conditions. Photo by David Moskowitz, davidmoskowitz.net

So, the reindeer pulling Santa's sleigh? Based on their antlers and names—Dancer, Prancer, Vixen—probably mostly females!

Here's another bit of Christmas magic that someone shared with me: the idea that there's an ancient link between Santa Claus, flying reindeer, and hallucinogenic Amanita mushrooms!

And then, another story: In Mongolian cultures, flying reindeer symbolized a shaman's (the Santa Claus in western traditions) spiritual journey from the earth to the sky. This Wikipedia entry is long, but you can scroll down to the section on reindeer, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deer_stones_culture.