Sunday, December 24, 2017

(Flying) Reindeer and Climate

reindeerI recall years ago; two young boys having a conversation. “There’s no such thing as Santa Clause,” the older boy insisted. But the younger boy wasn’t buying it. Come Christmas Eve, he was going to stay up all night, just to catch a glimpse of old Santa and his legendary sleigh full of presents. What excited the little guy the most though, was the thought of seeing those remarkable flying “reindeer on the roof!”

“Santa’s reindeer really can fly, can’t they?” he asked me, catching me completely off guard. I hesitated; then told him that reindeer were deer; very much like the whitetails we see around here, but with thicker bodies, shorter legs, and broader hooves. I added that whitetails and reindeer are cousins. And that moose and elk are reindeer cousins, too. Fortunately, he let it go at that.

In North America, reindeer is the name given to domesticated or semi-domesticated varieties of caribou; caribou being the French-Canadian name for wild reindeer. In Europe, all caribou are called reindeer.

Scientists have always been somewhat specific about the differences between the two, noting that domesticated reindeer tend to be shorter, smaller, and lighter in color than wild caribou. They note too, that wild caribou herds migrate with the changing seasons, usually allowing vegetation in grazing areas to regrow, whereas domesticated or semi-domesticated reindeer more-profoundly impact feeding grounds and need to be driven to better grazing areas when food becomes scarce.

Interestingly, a recent genetic mapping, published in Nature Climate Change, asserts that Eurasian reindeer and North American caribou are, in fact, different but closely related animals. Cousins. Their genetic signature suggests that during the last ice age, North American caribou and Eurasian reindeer became separated, developing into two different breeds. It wasn’t until the ice melted that populations again had the chance to interbreed. As such, the study also reveals something about the role that climate change has had on their ongoing evolution.

To most people, however, reindeer and caribou are one and the same, Rangifer tarandus, a native to the Arctic tundra and adjacent boreal forests. Their original range included northern Maine and parts of Minnesota. Small herds, numbering less than two or three dozen animals, may still exist in the Rocky Mountain regions of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington State. They are the only species in nature, deer or otherwise, in which both sexes grow antlers. A bull’s antlers can grow to 4-feet in width and weigh more than 30 pounds. Antler length in females is usually only 9-20 inches. All males drop their antlers in winter. Pregnant females usually retain their antlers until after birthing.

In the spring, each pregnant cow gives birth to a single calf. At birth, calves weigh between 10 and 20 pounds. Within an hour of their birth, they can walk. Within a day, they can outrun even the fastest humans.

In the wild, caribou reach sexual maturity in 29 to 41 months. Mating occurs in late September and October; during migration, when herds are traveling from summer to winter feeding grounds.

During the summer, caribou herds find an abundance of grasses, sedges, browse, and low-lying vegetation on which to feed. In winter, when food becomes scarce, they’re able to lower their metabolic rate and reduce their food intake. Their large, concave hooves allow them to dig easily through blankets of soft snow, to eat lichens and other available ground-vegetation.

But the Arctic is warming, with precipitation more often occurring as ‘rain-on-snow’ events, which cover vast areas of Arctic ‘pasture’ with a thick layer of dense, hard ice, frozen firmly to the ground, leaving the food source beneath it inaccessible. In 2013, a ‘rain-on-snow’ event resulted in the starvation and freezing deaths of 61,000 reindeer in the Yamal Peninsula of northwestern Siberia, Russia. A similar event, in 2006, killed 20,000.

As with other animals bred for agricultural purposes, different reindeer varieties have been developed to meet different human needs (i.e. milk and milk products, meat, pack and saddle animals) and environmental conditions. Some have been selectively bred for many generations, while other attempts at domestication simply didn’t work. Some domestic herds have escaped back into the wild only to become – well, not-quite-wild herds. Occasionally, individual domesticated animals wander off with passing migrating herds, never to be seen again.

With all the breeding, crossbreeding and genetic manipulation that has taken place, you would think that anything can happen. Nonetheless, I’m unaware of any variety of reindeer that can fly.

Please don’t tell the children.

Photo: Reindeer, courtesy Are G Nilsen.

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Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.

9 Responses

  1. adkDreamer says:

    Well written and excellent information, thank you Mr. Gast.

  2. kathy says:

    With the exception of Christmas Eve of course when historically a,great religion has its roots and animals talk at midnight , anything can happen …even flying reindeer. Faith is believing when we have not seen evidence!

  3. Bill Ott says:

    Merry Christmas John Warren from myself and I am sure from all the other readers of AA. I and we thank you for your service to our community.

  4. Charlie S says:

    “I’m unaware of any variety of reindeer that can fly.Please don’t tell the children.”

    We lie to the children Richard and those children oftentimes grow up naively believing in other lies and so our problems mount because. One of the reasons why our problems mount. Lies lead to wars as recent history has proven. We tell the children there’s a Santa Claus which is an outright lie.

    With that said………sometimes lies are not as harmful as they’re made out to be, especially in the Santa Claus case. Fib might be a milder term to use as an example in this case. I say this because I had an experience recently with Santa Claus at the Blue Mountain Lake firehouse. My niece brought her daughter Finley there to see Santa Claus who showed up in his usual red and white garb and long white cotton beard. Finley still believes in Santa Claus and when Saint Nick came walking through that firehouse door you should have seen her face light up! The other children too. What a joy to see children so intoxicated with glee! Especially considering how so many children in this world have a hard go at producing smiles due to whatever their misfortunes are. I may come off like a grinch sometimes but the way things are shaping in this world I’m all for whatever it takes to put cheer into others, especially children, even those those moments of cheer may be brief. Just a little light is all it takes sometimes to set people straight and a little smile or a positive note from whatever source can go a long ways oftentimes. I know because i’ve been there done that.

  5. Charlie S says:

    “even though those moments of cheer may be brief.”

    Typo revised

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