What would Christmas be like without some reference to Reindeer? Stocking would not be filled by Father Christmas and Christmas songs like Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer would mean nothing.
Originally, the Reindeer or Caribou was found in Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Russia, Mongolia and northern China. It was later found in Canada, Alaska and Northern USA from Washington to Maine. It was even found in Spain during the late Pleistocene era. Today, wild Reindeer have disappeared from many areas, although there is a herd of about 50 Reindeer in the Cairngorms, Scotland. The last remaining wild Reindeer in Europe are found in parts of southern Norway.
A few Reindeer from Norway were introduced to the South Atlantic island of South Georgia in the beginning of the 20th century. Today, there are two distinct herds still thriving there, permanently separated by glaciers, but heir total numbers are no more than a few thousand. The flag and the coat of arms of the territory contain an image of a Reindeer. Around 4,000 Reindeer have been introduced into the French sub-Antarctic archipelago of Kerguelen Islands
All Reindeer grow antlers which usually fall off at differing stages during the year; in December for older males, young males in the early spring and for females in the summer. Reindeer have specialized noses featuring nasal turbinate bones that dramatically increase the surface area within the nostrils. This helps the Reindeer cope with the cold environment so that incoming cold air is warmed by the animal’s body heat before entering the lungs and water is condensed from the expired air and captured before the deer’s breath is exhaled. The Reindeer coat has two layers of fur; a dense woolly undercoat and longer-haired overcoat consisting of hollow, air-filled hairs.
During the winter, Reindeer travel to forested areas to forage under the snow. By spring, groups leave their winter grounds to go to the calving grounds. A Reindeer can swim easily and quickly and migrating herds will not hesitate to swim across a large lake or broad river. Mating occurs from late September to early November with males battling for access to females. Two males will lock each other’s antlers together and try to push each other away. The most dominant males can collect as many as 15-20 females to mate with. A male Reindeer will stop eating during this time and lose much of its body reserves. Calves may be born the following May or June. After 45 days, the calves are able to graze and forage, but continue suckling until the following fall when they become independent from their mothers.
Reindeer hooves adapt to the season. In the summer, when the tundra is soft and wet, the footpads become sponge-like and provide extra traction. In the winter, the pads shrink and tighten, exposing the rim of the hoof, which cuts into the ice and snow to keep it from slipping. This also enables the Reindeer to dig down through the snow to their favorite food; lichen known as Reindeer Moss. Reindeer are ruminants, having a four-chambered stomach. As well as lichen, they eat the leaves of willows and birches and sedges and grasses and even mushrooms. There is some evidence to suggest that on occasion, they will also feed on lemmings and bird eggs.
There are various predators of the Reindeer, although most of the time it is the young and the weak that succumb. Golden Eagles will prey on the young calves, as will wolves, brown bears and polar bears, but wolves are their biggest threat as they will challenge adult Reindeer.