What's a reindeer? Is it the same as a caribou?
Reindeer and caribou are the same species but different subspecies. Alaskan
reindeer are classified as Rangifer tarandus tarandus while Alaskan caribou are
known as Rangifer tarandus granti.
Here's a complete taxonomy chart for Rangifer tarandus:
|Phylum||Chordata (backbone with spinal cord)|
|Class|| Mammalia (milk producing)|
|Order|| Artiodactyla (even-toed)|
|Suborder||Ruminantia (true ruminant)|
As a result of thousands of years of domestication and selective breeding,
reindeer and caribou have some distinguishing physical and behavioral
Caribou are migratory creatures, traveling long distances to winter pasture and
back again for spring calving. They tend to be lean, with long legs well suited to
long migrations. When herded or chased, caribou tend to spread out and
scatter. Caribou bulls may be larger than reindeer bulls, but females are usually
similar in size.
Reindeer are much more sedentary than caribou. While they do exhibit seasonal
grazing patterns, their movements remain primarily within a well established
home range. Reindeer tend to have a more robust body shape, with shorter legs
and a flatter face. When herded, reindeer gather together into a cohesive unit
instead of spreading out. It is interesting to note that just one or two caribou in a
reindeer herd will cause the entire herd to behave more erratically and scatter.
Rangifer tarandus is the only deer species in which both the males and females
grow antlers. Even calves grow antlers during their first year! Antlers, by
definition, are shed and re-grown every year. Bulls lose their antlers during the
winter, typically around Christmas time. Non-pregnant females will also lose their
antlers during the winter. Pregnant females will not drop their antlers until they
give birth in the spring. Because animals with antlers are dominant over those
without, this adaptation allows pregnant a female to protect her food resources
during scarce winter conditions, ensuring adequate nutrition for the continued
development of her fetus.
Female reindeer typically reach reproductive maturity as yearlings, though it is
possible for a female to become impregnated during the fall of her first year and
give birth as a yearling. Females may stay productive for a dozen years or more.
Bulls don't fully exhibit the characteristics of rut until about three years of age.
Because they are unable to compete with other bulls prior to this, they rarely
successfully breed as very young animals. They are, however, reproductively
viable by the time they are yearlings. In the absence of older bulls, they are
capable of servicing females, though they are able to maintain only a small
Bulls typically don't live past about 8 years of age. During the rut, they are active
in keeping their harem together and they eat very little during this time. When
winter arrives, they are in poor condition and must struggle to gain weight during
the scarcest time of year. Older bulls often cannot survive the harsh winter once
they become weakened by the rut.
Breeding season for reindeer happens during August and September.
Gestation lasts for 200-220 days and females will begin to give birth in April,
continuing into May. The reproductive cycle of North American caribou is about
a month behind that of reindeer.
The birth weight of reindeer calves typically ranges from 6 to 8 kilograms.
They grow quickly, and weigh between 65 and 75 kilograms by the
time they are yearlings. As adults, females (non pregnant) weigh from 70-90 kilograms
while males weigh 90-120 kilograms, depending on the season and whether or not they are castrated.
Adaptations to Life in the Arctic
Reindeer are uniquely adapted to thrive in the harsh environments of the arctic.
To learn more, click here to view a fun and educational slideshow.
From season to season
Each season of a reindeer's life is marked by significant physiological and
behavioral changes. To learn more, have a look at this seasonal calendar.
History in Alaska
Alaska has been home to reindeer for more than a century. For a detailed acount click here.
The Seward Peninsula
Though reindeer are found throughout western Alaska, the population is concentrated in free ranging herds on the Seward Peninsula. Read more here.
Reindeer in the circumpolar north
Check back soon for more information about reindeer throughout the north.