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Reindeer

By Gerry Bishop; Photos provided by Nature Picture Library

You know Dasher, Dancer, Rudolph, and the rest. But what else do you know about reindeer? 'Tis the season to discover more!

Reindeer - Dec/Jan 2018 RR

So, what ARE reindeer?
They're a kind of deer that is always “on top of the world.” Why? Because that’s where they live: in the northernmost part of the world, called the Far North (see map above).

All reindeer are pretty much the same, but those living in North America are usually called caribou (KAIR-uh-boo.) That name comes from an American Indian word for “the one who paws.” To find out how caribou live up to that name, and to learn more cool facts about reindeer throughout the world, hoof it on over to the next page.

Reindeer - Dec/Jan 2018 RR

How do reindeer keep warm in some of the coldest places on Earth?
Their bodies are built for it. For example, they have . . .
• an extra-warm, two-layer coat made of thick, woolly hairs underneath and hollow hairs on the outside. The air inside the hollow hairs helps hold in body heat. 

• short ears and a short tail. These give off less body heat than the longer ears and tails of other deer.

• special blood vessels in their legs. The vessels warm up the cool blood that is flowing from the legs back to the heart.

• a nose with extra passageways. As cold, dry air flows through a reindeer’s two nostrils and into many special passageways, it is warmed and moistened before moving to the lungs.

How do reindeer find enough food?
It’s a lot easier during the summer. Even though the ground stays frozen below the surface, warmer weather melts much of the snow and ice on top, allowing tasty grasses and other plants to grow.

But finding enough to eat in winter is another story. Reindeer must use their strong sense of smell to sniff out food buried as deep as two feet under snow and ice. Mostly what they find are plant-like lichens (LYEkunz) that can survive under snow all winter. Good thing reindeer really like lichens!

Once a reindeer sniffs out something to eat, it breaks through any hard crust of snow with its sharp-edged hooves. Then it paws past the softer snow—all the way to dinner.

What kinds of places do reindeer live in?
One kind of reindeer, the woodland caribou, lives in deep forests all year round. But most reindeer move from place to place with the seasons. And their surroundings change with every move.

In the winter, most reindeer live in the southern part of the Far North, along the edges of snowy, evergreen forests, where the snow is less deep and food is easier to dig up.

But in spring, more food is available farther north, so herds of reindeer travel up toward the coast of the Arctic Ocean. There, mothers give birth to their calves.

Once summer arrives, the reindeer herds wander across northern plains, called the tundra, grazing on grasses and other plants.

When the weather turns colder in fall, the deer start to head southward, back toward the edges of forests, where they will spend another long, cold winter.

Reindeer are famous for their migration, or long-distance travel. Some migrate farther than any other land mammals in the world—up to 3,000 miles in a single year.

Reindeer - Dec/Jan 2018 RR

Do reindeer have any enemies?
During spring and summer, swarms of blood-sucking black flies and mosquitoes attack reindeer. The deer can be so busy trying to escape these insect swarms, that they don’t take time to eat all they need. And that can be bad for their health.

Wolves—and sometimes bears—are reindeer’s main predators. But golden eagles may grab baby reindeer. People also hunt reindeer.

How do reindeer defend themselves from wolves?
They run! Reindeer can sprint up to 50 miles per hour. That means wolves have the best luck catching old, sick, or injured reindeer. Reindeer are also really good swimmers. Their air-filled coats help keep them afloat, and their wide hooves make good paddles. When being chased by wolves, reindeer may swim far out into the water to escape.

Do reindeer use their antlers to protect themselves?
Unlike other kinds of deer, both male and female reindeer have antlers. They do use them to defend themselves from predators. But male reindeer mostly use their antlers to fight other males for mates. 

Female reindeer use their antlers mostly to keep other females away from food they find.

Are reindeer endangered?
In some places, reindeer have become extinct or are becoming very rare. In other places, there may be millions of reindeer. But even there, the number of reindeer is dropping fast. Here’s why:
• As the world’s climate warms, the tundra is thawing. That means more kinds of plants can grow there. You might think that is good news for reindeer. But in many places, their favorite foods—lichens and grasses—are being replaced by shrubs that are difficult to eat.
• There is more and more mining, logging, road construction, and oil and gas development in the Far North. These activities can make it harder for reindeer to migrate, have calves, and find food.
• In some places, people hunt too many reindeer.

Are there any tame reindeer?
People of the Far North have been taming reindeer for more than 3,000 years. In fact, reindeer are the only tame-able deer in the world. 

Some reindeer herders still follow their animals as they migrate across the tundra in search of food—just as they did long ago. But most herders today keep their animals in large, fenced pastures.

How do people use reindeer?
People eat their meat, drink their milk, and wear their hides as clothing. Hides also are good for making tents and other shelters. And reindeer bones and antlers can be made into tools. 

Do reindeer really pull sleighs?
During the winter, some people use reindeer to pull sleighs through the snow. There’s also that story about eight tiny reindeer pulling a sleigh through the sky every Christmas.

 

"Reindeer" originally appeared in the December/January 2018 issue of Ranger Rick magazine. Click here for a close-up view of the photos.

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