By Sara Thompson
Special to the Enterprise
Images of reindeer are common this season, but what makes these animals so special? These animals live in some of the most extreme locations on earth, staying exclusively in the arctic in the Northern Hemisphere. There are over a dozen different subspecies of reindeer worldwide, with several being in North America. Called caribou in North America and reindeer everywhere else, they are the same animal. Reindeer, like all deer, elk, and moose, are part of the Cervidae family and share many characteristics of other members of the family, but also have several unique ones.
Like their relatives, reindeer are herbivorous, mammals with four cloven hooves. One of their most recognizable characteristics are their antlers, just like with all of the other deer species. Antlers are used in defense of predators, competing with each other during breeding season, and to help find food. One of the unique things about reindeer antlers that differs from other deer species is that the females also grow annual antlers, and not just the males. The males will grow their antlers in the springtime around March and April and will keep them until after breeding season and will fall off in late fall or early winter. Females grow their antlers in the warmer summer months and will keep them until after they have calved usually in May.
Male reindeer are usually bigger, weighing between 350-400 lbs., where the females usually weight between 180-260 lbs.. Reindeer have the second largest antler of all living deer Cervids, behind only to the moose, but the largest in in terms of antler size to body size ratios. As well as body size, male antlers are also typically larger than the females.
Reindeer have a dual layer coat to help them survive in the cold regions they call home. A dense, wooly undercoat and much longer hairs in an overcoat help keep their core body temperature up. Reindeer have also adapted a heat exchange system in various parts of their body known as countercurrent heat exchange. This process is mainly done in their legs, where blood travelling in arteries to the legs runs closely to the blood travelling in veins away from the legs. The blood exchanges heat between the arteries and veins instead of dissipating, helping to keep the core of the animal warm. A similar mechanism is also present in their noses. When a reindeer breathes in the cold air is warmed by the body before entering the lungs, and any moisture is retained when the animal exhales.
Reindeer can also change their coat color during the seasons to best match their environment, much like weasels and hares. Their eyes also change color to better to adapt to changing sunlight in different seasons. Reindeer are also believed to have ultraviolet sensitive eyes to better see in the snow, such as animal fur and urine.
Reindeer and caribou have also been partially domesticated in that the herds still roam but are maintained a protected by people. They have many special and unique adaptations that have helped them survive thousands of years.
Check out Explorit's Happy Holidays Quiz to test your knowledge on reindeer and more!
Explorit's coming events:
• Due to COVID-19 restrictions and the health and safety of our staff and visitors, our gallery will remain closed. Staff regularly check messages and email. Watch for additional after school camps in the new year.
• Like many small businesses the closures have had a significant impact on our income and sustainability. Now is a great time to donate and help Explorit continue to educate and inspire the scientists of tomorrow: https://www.explorit.org/donate
• Looking for something to spend holiday gift money on? An Exploit Membership not only support us but grants the recipient with free visits to Explorit’s regular public hours, discounts on events, camps, and workshops, and gives you ASTC benefits to visit other museums throughout the world. For more information visit https://www.explorit.org/membership or call Explorit at 530-756-0191.