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Caribou & Reindeer

Caribou Swimming

Caribou and reindeer are members of the Deer family. They are Caribou when wild in North America and Reindeer when in Europe and Asia. Most of the reindeer are now domesticated although small groups of wild reindeer do exist in some areas. Being deer both Caribou and Reindeer shed their antlers every year, unlike any other deer, the female also grows antlers but unlike the male, who sheds his fine antlers after the rut, she keeps hers through the winter in order to be able to defend any work she has done digging for food in the deep snow. In this way she can protect both her unborn calf and the youngster at heel at a time when food is hard to find and the best armed individual has a right to it, no matter who dug for it. They are also useful if she has any encounter with a predator, heavily pregnant she is equipped to fight rather than flee. The antlers are bone, covered in velvet as they grow, they are warm and softish at this time and some groups harvest them for their high value as Panty, used in the Far East as an aphrodisiac and also by indigenous groups, for medicinal purposes. When the antlers have hardened the animals rub the velvet off them, sometimes leaving traces of blood on the antler and ribbons of skin hanging from them. Both Reindeer and caribou have hollow hair that is an excellent insulator, inside their noses is a very efficient heat exchanger, warming the cold air on its way in against the hot air being breathed out, they have a similar system with the blood in their legs. They have very noisy feet, the tendons in their feet click, so a combination of the grunts they make to communicate and the clicking of their feet as they walk is very distinctive.


Migrating Caribou
The Barren Ground Caribou are grouped in herds across Alaska and Arctic Canada, these groups migrate through the their own territories every year not intermixing. In the spring they move north out of the trees, on the way the females calve and then the herd continues northwards to the summer pastures. Biting insects are a real problem during the summer months and the caribou resort to sitting on snow patches or standing in water to escape them. A couple of months after giving birth, the herd starts to move south towards the winter pastures, pausing a the tree line for the rut, when the animals mate. Then they stay in the shelter of the trees for the coldest months.

Reindeer follow a similar pattern fromwinter to summer pastures and back again, but where and when they stop to feed will be decided by the herders who have ancestral grazing lands which need to be managed carefully in order not to be overgrazed. In Siberia, whole families move back and forth across the tundra following their reindeer herds. In some parts of Scandinavia, mostly Finland and Sweden the reindeer are ranched, in summer they graze on grass but during the winter they are fed on bagged animal food with a supplement of branches and lichen.


During the winter the caribou and reindeer eat lichens as these remain edible if not highly nutricious, during the winter months, one benefit of this is that because the lichen are low in protein, the animals need less water for the digestive process, a huge bonus when all water is tied up in snow and ice. Caribou and reindeer produce an enzyme which helps them to digest the lichens. Frequently they need to dig for them through a layer of snow. In the summer months reindeer have a wider range of food available to them and they eat grasses and sedges, berries, twigs of birch and willow, and they just love mushrooms. Reindeer herders anywhere will tell you that moving the herd south in a good mushroom autumn will be complicated by an animal raising its head then trotting off to find the mushroom it has just scented.


Svalbard Reindeer
The reindeer in North America are caribou, and they are found right across Arctic North America, in the north of the Canadian archipelago and in Northern Greenland there are the endangered Peary Caribou, these are smaller than barren ground caribou and nearly white. There is a population of reindeer in Alaska and Western Canada. In the 1890’s the Alaskan government introduced domesticated reindeer from Europe to Alaska to stave off starvation, the experiment wasn’t really a success, but in the 1930’s the Canadian government purchased 3,000 of these animals and on a spectacular journey that took 5 years, 2,370 reindeer were delivered to the Canadians at the Mackenzie Delta. We met an Eskimo in Shishmaref who still herds reindeer, but they are very low maintenance because he keeps an eye on where they are using his computer and the satellite tags the animals are wearing, he rarely needs to visit them. In some areas this is causing problems as the domesticated animals breed with the wild herds of caribou. The wild reindeer in Norway are in the south by the Arctic Circle, but the largest numbers in Scandinavia are in the north with the Sami. Reindeer are herded right across the north of Siberia by a variety of native groups. In Spitsbergen there is a population of very short legged, round reindeer and there are even reindeer in South Georgia in the South Atlantic

Reindeer Caribou and Man

It is possible that the reindeer was the first cloven hoofed animal to be domesticated and they features in a lot of the early cave paintings. The native people of the Arctic have certainly hunted them for a long time and the meat, antlers and very warm skins have an important place in the culture of the Inuit of Canada and Alaska. In Russia, although they were hunted by groups like the Nganasan, more recently they are mostly herded, although there are wild reindeer in many places in Siberia. The largest reindeer aer found in Tuva by the Mongolian border and some people think that this is the region that reindeer originated from. Apart from man, the chief predator of reindeer are wolves but lynx, wolverine and Eagles can also take animals.


Reindeer herding in the NWT

Reindeer in Alaska

Text © B & C Alexander

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