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Caribou / Reindeer

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Reindeer/CaribouScientific classificationBinomial name

C.H. Smith, 1827
Species:R. tarandus
Rangifer tarandus
(Linnaeus, 1758)
The reindeer, known as caribou in North America, is an Arctic and Subarctic-dwelling deer (Rangifer tarandus).


The reindeer is distributed throughout a number of northern locales. Reindeer are found throughout Scandinavia (including Iceland); in Russian Europe in Spitsbergen and furthermore, Northern Russia including Novaya Zemlya; in Russian Asia, to the Pacific Ocean; in North America on Greenland, Canada and Alaska. In 1952, reindeer were re-introduced to Scotland, as the natural stock had become extinct in the 10th century.

Domesticated deer are mostly found in Northern Scandinavia and Russia, and wild deer are mostly found in North America, Greenland and Iceland. Its natural occurrence is approximately bounded within the 62° longitude.


The weight of a female varies between 60 and 170 kg. In some subspecies of reindeer, the male is slightly larger; in others, the male can weigh up to 300 kg. Both sexes grow antlers, which (in the Scandinavian variety) for old males fall off in December, for young males in the spring and for females during the summer. The antlers typically have two separate groups of points (see image), a lower and upper. Domesticated animals (reindeer) are shorter-legged and heavier than their wild counterparts (caribou).

Reindeer are ruminants, having a four-chambered stomach. They mainly eat lichens in winter, especially reindeer moss. However, they also eat the leaves of willows and birches, as well as sedges and grasses. They can also eat voles (lat. clethrionomys glareolus), lemmings (lat. lemmus lemmus), birds and bird eggs.

Reindeer antlers grow again each year under a layer of fur called velvet. This reindeer is currently losing the velvet layer on one of its antlers.
Reindeer antlers grow again each year under a layer of fur called velvet. This reindeer is currently losing the velvet layer on one of its antlers.
An unusual feature of the reindeer is that it has front teeth only on its bottom jaw; there are molars on both the top and bottom.

Reindeer have specialized noses featuring nasal turbinate bones that dramatically increase the surface area within the nostrils. Incoming cold air is warmed by the animal's body heat before entering the lungs, and water is condensed from the expired air and captured before the deer's breath is exhaled, used to moisten dry incoming air and possibly absorbed into the blood through the mucous membranes.


In the wild, caribou migrate in large herds between their birthing habitat and their winter habitat. Their wide hooves help the animal move through snow and tundra; they also help propel the animal when it swims. About 1 million live in Alaska, and a comparable number live in northern Canada.

There are an estimated 5 million reindeer in Eurasia, mainly semi-domesticated. The last remaining European herd of the genetic wild reindeer is found in the central areas of Norway. It consists of approximately 6,500 animals in winter and is considered to be very vulnerable to human disturbances, especially during the calving period in April.

Males usually split apart from the group and become solitary, while the remaining herd consists mostly of females, usually a matriarchy.

Diseases and threats

Natural threats to caribou include avalanches and the predators wolves, wolverines, lynxes, bears, etc. In mesolithic and neolithic periods, Europeans hunted them, too. Ravens can indirectly kill caribou calves by blinding them (eating their eyes).

Parasites include warble flies, mosquitoes, and nose bot flies. Roundworms and tapeworms can also afflict reindeer.

Diseases include brucellosis, foot rot, and keratitis (white-eye, an infection of the eye).

Reindeer and humans

 Two Scottish reindeer relax after pulling Santa's sleigh, at the switching on of Yate's 2004 Christmas lights, near Bristol, England.
Two Scottish reindeer relax after pulling Santa's sleigh, at the switching on of Yate's 2004 Christmas lights, near Bristol, England.


Wild caribou are still hunted in North America. In the traditional lifestyle of the Inuit people and Northern First Nations people, the caribou is a source of food, clothing, shelter and tools.

The reindeer has (or have had) an important economic role for all circumpolar peoples, including the Sami, Nenets, Khants, Evenks, Yukaghirs, Tjuktjer and Korjaker in Eurasia. It is believed that domestication started between Bronze Age-Iron Age. Siberian deer-owners also use the reindeer to ride on. (Siberian reindeer are larger than their Scandinavian relatives.) For breeders, a single deer-owner usually own some hundreds or up to thousands of animals. The numbers of Russian herders have been drastically reduced since the fall of the Soviet Union. The fur and meat is sold, which is an important source of income. Reindeer were introduced into Alaska near the end of the 19th century; they interbreed with native caribou subspecies there. Reindeer herders on the Seward Peninsula have experienced significant losses to their herds from animals following the wild caribou during their migrations.

Reindeer meat is popular in the Scandinavian countries. Reindeer meatballs are sold canned. Reindeer stew is the best-known dish in Lapland. In Alaska, reindeer sausage is sold locally to supermarkets and grocery stores.

Reindeer antler is powdered and sold as a nutritional or medicinal supplement to Asian markets.

Local names

In Sami, the male caribou is called sarve, a castrated bull (which in old time was performed by a bite) hierke and the female sex is called vaya. The name Caribou is thought to come from a Mi'kmaq word that means "one that paws (the ground)".


Barren Ground Caribou, notable for its whiter coat and smaller antlers compared to the Woodland Caribou.
Barren Ground Caribou, notable for its whiter coat and smaller antlers compared to the Woodland Caribou.
  • Svalbard Reindeer (R. tarandus platyrhynchus) which are found on Svalbard is the smallest subspecies of reindeer.
  • Mountain/Wild Reindeer (R. tarandus tarandus) which have a continuous distribution in the tundra biome from west to east across the Eurasian continent, including Fennoscandia.
  • Finnish Forest Reindeer (R. tarandus fennicus) Wild forest reindeer in Fennoscandia are only found in two areas, in Finnish/Russian Karelia, and a small population in central south Finland. The Karelia population reaches far in to Russia, however, so far that it remains an open question whether reindeer further to the east are fennicus as well.
  • Woodland Caribou (R. tarandus caribou) which are found in North American woodlands as far south as Maine and Washington. Woodland Caribou have disappeared from most of their original range and are considered "threatened" where they remain, with the notable exception of the Migratory Woodland Caribou of northern Quebec and Labrador, Canada.
  • Peary Caribou (R. tarandus pearyi) which are found in the islands of the Canadian Arctic.
  • Barren-ground Caribou (R. tarandus groenlandicus) which are found in northern Canada. This is the most numerous subspecies in North America.
  • Grant's Caribou (R. tarandus granti) which are found in Alaska and northwestern Canada.
  • Arctic reindeer (R. tarandus eogroenlandicus) which is an East Greenland population that has been extinct since 1900.

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