Time for another animal spotlight here, this week being the reindeer!! And caribou… we’ll get on to that. Reindeer are pretty amazing animals, being one of the core reason people managed to survive in the Arctic in the past. We will be looking at their history, their natural history and how they were used in a more recent attempt to help people survive in the Arctic. Also, we’ll touch on Santa as I guess it’s unavoidable… but these animals are so much more than just Christmas!!
History and lifestyle
Reindeer can be found across the Arctic from Alaska and Canada to Greenland, Fenno-Scandinavia and Russia. Reindeer and caribou are the same species of animal, but we tend to call the ones in Northern America caribou and the ones in Eurasia reindeer. Here I’ll just be using ‘reindeer’.
To start with the basics, reindeer vary in size, with the subspecies in Svalbard being short and fluffy, and forest reindeer in Finland being quite tall, but on average females are around 160-200cm weighing 80-120kg, and males 180-215cm weighing 90-210kg. Both females and males grow antlers which drop off each year, but whilst the males use them for the rut in spring and then lose them, the ladies keep their antlers throughout winter. Yes folks, that means that Rudolph and friends are ladies. You can roughly age a reindeer by the number of tines (pointy bits) on their antlers, with one tine being roughly equivalent to one year of life.
Reindeer have existed as a species for over 600,000 years, through Ice Ages and massive changes in human culture too. Part of their secret to survival is that they are largely migratory animals. This allows them to find more food when resources dwindle in one area, making them more flexible in the face of environmental change. They also have been known to migrate up mountains or to the coast where it is cooler and windier in summer to get away from insects like mosquitoes and botflies. These tiny horrors can really disturb the reindeer, burrowing into their skin and noses to plant eggs and just generally irritating them, so it’s understandable the reindeer would favour low-insect areas. In fact they can stress the reindeer out so much that it has caused some females to abort their calves. North American caribou are known to do some of the longest migrations, these being around 5000km (3,100miles) each year.
They also have some pretty cool physical adaptations. Reindeer have hollow hairs making their fur extra warm, and their noses are specially shaped to decrease their nostrils surface area and so decreasing the amount of cold air entering the body in winter. Their do after all live in some of the coldest parts of the globes which in the depths of winter can reach -50oC and below (-58F). Another adaptation to these wintery conditions is their digestions. In winter food is often of very poor quality, and reindeer have to dig through snow to reach it on the ground below. This means they need to squeeze every last bit of energy out of each mouthful to survive. Luckily they are ruminants, having a four chambered stomach like a cow. This means that the food they eat is essentially digested multiple times allowing more nutrition to be absorbed from it. Finally the reindeer also have special eyes, being able to see UV light. This allows them to see things like fur and urine which may normally largely blend in with their white surroundings.
Semi-domesticated and wild
Not all reindeer are wild. There are many wild populations around the world, but there are also many semi-domesticated populations. This means that the reindeer are owned by people and interact with them to some degree, but still roam out in the open rather than being kept within fenced fields like sheep or cattle. These semi-domesticated reindeer are owned in many parts of the world by indigenous reindeer herders, this being the Saami in Northern Europe, and the Evenki, Nenets and Dolgan people in Russia, Northern China and Mongolia, to name but a few. Reindeer are one of the few animals that can survive year round in the Arctic, and so have been a vital source of food for people living in this difficult area throughout history, first starting with hunting and then later many groups starting to herd them. They are mainly used for food as well as their warm furs, though their antlers, bones and sinews can be used for various things too.
Some reindeer within a herd are specially chosen to be fully domesticated. These ones will be used to pull sleds and milked, and are kept near to house rather than allowed to roam free. Because of their migratory lifestyle, reindeer herders must often be mobile too, either moving constantly throughout the year in homes that can be deconstructed and carried with them, or by having specific summer and winter camps along the migration route which they move between so they can keep an eye on their animals.
Whilst the reindeer give people food, the herders in return can try to protect them from predators like wolves, lynx and wolverines, and in some areas during really bad winter conditions herders are also providing supplementary food for the reindeer to help them survive the difficult season.
North America has a bit of a different relationship between people and caribou. Herds across Canada are wild, and in Alaska they all used to be wild with indigenous groups like the Inupĩaq hunting them for food. In the late 1800s commercial whale hunting has decimated the whale populations, as well as hunting and trapping commercially for furs severely reducing other marine and terrestrial life. This left the Alaskan Natives without major and essential sources of food.
Unfortunately most didn’t care about the plight of the Alaskan Natives, but one who did was Captain Healy, a former slave from Georgia who had escaped and joined a merchant vessel eventually rising to rank of captain. He heard that many of the Natives were starving due to food shortages, yet whilst on his travels he had seen the success of reindeer herders in Siberia, so suggested that these semi-domesticated reindeer be transported to Alaska to be raised by the Natives. Between 1888 and 1892, 151 reindeer were brought across along with some herders to teach the Alaskan Natives how to herd. Due to cultural clashes the Siberian herders returned home, after which Saami herders from Northern Europe were brought over to teach. The reindeer herding took off a little more this time, with their meat and pulling power being sought after with the discovery of gold in the town of Nome in Alaska.
By the 1930s there were 640,000 semi domesticated reindeer in Alaska, yet by the 50s this had dropped to 50,000 due to heavy predation, poor winter conditions, loss of semi-domesticated animals to wild herds and lack of attention from the herders. Today there are only 20,000 semi domesticated reindeer left (these ones being called reindeer despite being in North American as their ancestors came from Siberia and Europe. Confusing, yes). In the long term perhaps not a glowing success then, but it may have helped to partially deal with the food shortages in the late 1800s. Nowadays many whale and otter populations have bounced back, and many Alaskan Natives no longer rely on subsistence hunting for food.
Fly agaric mushroom
Right, the Santa’s flying reindeer thing. So the source of this story is filled with suggestions, confusions and myths, but general consensus points towards the following:
During the days which led up to the winter solstice Shamans in Central Asia would collect the fly agaric mushroom, this being the red and white spotty mushroom. Supposedly they would specially wear red and white clothes and black boots whilst doing this. Then, they would got to a yurt and enter through the smoke hole in the roof. The shaman would perform a ritual which involved consuming part of the mushroom and sharing it with others present. Side note- this is a poisonous mushroom so DO NOT eat it, but if prepared in a certain way it has psychoactive properties which can and were/are consumed.
Here it is thought that either as the shaman left, people thought flying reindeer must have been getting him to and from the yurt as reindeer were the main draught animal in the area, or that the hallucinations from the drugs gave people the feeling that they were flying in a “spiritual sleigh” which they thought to be pulled by reindeer or horses. These are all pretty anecdotal but are thought to be some of the roots of the reindeer and Santa tradition, with the red and white clothes later popularised by Coca-cola adverts to coming down the chimney to flying reindeer pulling a sleigh.
Connected to this is the story that reindeer eat fly agaric mushrooms and their urine is collected. This urine is then drunk to get the psychoactive effects of the mushroom without the poison, either by just literally collecting urine in a bucket or by collecting snow on which the reindeer have peed. That one has relatively credible sources of being true.
Though reindeer are usually just associated with Christmas, they are actually incredible and hugely important animals in their own right, being responsible for the survival of people in the Arctic for thousands of years and being incredibly ancient and adaptable creatures themselves. Not only that but let’s be honest, they are pretty cute…
For more info:
A shameless self-plug. Here’s an article I wrote about reindeer and climate which I’ve linked to before in this plog: https://theconversation.com/mass-starvation-of-reindeer-linked-to-climate-change-and-habitat-loss-121452
A great BBC documentary about the lives of Nenet reindeer herders in Siberia. Very interesting, very important watch, and gives a great idea of the relationship with reindeer, people and their environment:
Cover image: Juergen Ritterbach/ALAMY Stock Photo