Posted 3rd Oct 2013
Celebrated each Christmas season is the magic and majesty of the reindeer, but these curious creatures have quite a different tale to tell. We discover more about their survival in the Arctic and the reindeer herds that live right here in Britain
Legendary as sleigh-pullers and iconic as the lovable companions of Father Christmas, reindeer are certainly no strangers to our festive celebrations. Though familiar to us all, these incredible creatures have far more to offer than first meets the eye, with extraordinary characteristics and survival skills, they are considered one of the most important species in Scandinavia - today captivating the British nation too.
Reindeer, or caribou, are a species of semi-domesticated deer native to Arctic and Subarctic regions. Reindeer are generally divided into two varieties, the tundra reindeer and the woodland reindeer, sharing nine sub-species between them. Traditionally herded by Sami tribes indigenous to Scandinavia, reindeer have been a valuable resource for their meat, hides, antlers, milk and transportation since Palaeolithic times. Believed to have once existed naturally in Britain over 8,000 years ago, reindeer are today found largely in Norway, Finland, Greenland, Russia, Alaska and Canada.
Perhaps most recognisable for their antlers, they are the only species of deer where both the male (bull) and female (cow) have them. The antlers are grown from permanent bones on the reindeer skull, covered in a soft fur called velvet. The velvet is rubbed off before the antlers are shed each year, regrowing again with the new antlers come March. By the end of August blood stops flowing through the antlers and the bone hardens in time for the rut, a period from autumn when males battle for superiority and the chance to mate with a harem of females. The bulls shed their antlers in winter after the rut, though cows keep their antlers until after they give birth in spring to help protect their young and successfully compete for food. The complex, long swooping beams are as unique as a fingerprint, with no two reindeer sporting the same antler design. Bulls grow the largest antlers, though size is determined by age, nutrition and genetics. Some male antlers can grow up to a staggering metre in width and 135cm in beam length, the second largest of any deer after the moose.
The antlers aren't the only impressive part of the reindeer make-up, their hooves change throughout the year too. Native to tundra habitats, some of the worlds coldest, harshest biomes, reindeer are up against the elements through much of the year, often facing deep snow and extreme icy conditions. Their hooves remarkably adapt to this; in summer the footpads become soft and sponge-like providing extra grip on the supple, wet ground, whilst in winter the footpads shrink and tighten. This exposes the hoof rim, allowing the reindeer to cut through ice and up to three feet of snow, all the while keeping a good grip and aiding in digging for food - assisted by the reindeer's very keen sense of smell.
Facing blizzards and treacherous weather is an incredible challenge for any species, but reindeer are very well adapted. If you listen carefully you may just hear a gentle click-click sound as the reindeer stride, an intelligent characteristic that helps keep track of the herd in poor visibility. The clicking sound is made by a tendon rubbing over a bone in the ankle when the reindeer walk, usually starting when a calf reaches 12 months old. Astonishingly reindeer also have the ability to lower the temperature in their legs to just above freezing in extreme cold, helping them to retain precious body heat. Another way reindeer fight the freeze is through their two-layered winter coat and insulating hair on the muzzle. Reindeer grow thick winter fur that is vital to their survival against these severe weather conditions, made up of a distinct brown-grey and white pattern. The waterproof coat consists of two layers, a dense wooly undercoat good for trapping cold air, and a long overcoat made up of hollow hairs that provide excellent insulation and natural buoyancy for swimming. They lose their winter coat around June to help them keep cool in the warm summer weather.
Read the rest of this feature on p.96 of the November/December 2013 issue...
By Natalie Mason