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Merry Christmas from EcoPress

I was flying home from Detroit on Monday after a family visit, and the captain informed the plane that he had received word from Chicago’s air traffic control that Santa Claus would be in the vicinity of our flight path that night. Unfortunately, despite my constant vigilance, I did not detect Santa and his reindeer. Thankfully, this has not dampened the holiday spirit at EcoPress, and we would like to wish all of our readers a very Merry Christmas. As ecologists, we celebrate Christmas the only way we know how: with a review of the life history of the reindeer (Rangifer tarandus).

Reindeer, also known as caribou, display a wide range of sizes, though in general, inhabitants of the southerly latitudes are larger than those in the north. There is marked sexual dimorphism, meaning that males are generally much larger than their female counterparts. There are multiple subspecies of reindeer that vary in color by region, sex, and season, from very dark brown to nearly white, and most have white areas around the belly, neck, and hooves. Reindeer are unique in that they are only species of deer in which both sexes have antlers, and mature bulls can carry large, complex antlers.  Also unique to reindeer is the recessive trait found in some populations that results in a large, glowing, red nose.
Image credit: Animal Diversity Web
Image credit: Kyle C. Joly via Animal Diversity Web.

Reindeer, have a nearly circumpolar distribution.  The various subspecies of reindeer range from 46 degrees north latitude to 80 degrees north latitude, and inhabit arctic tundra and sub-arctic (boreal) forest regions throughout North America, Europe, and Asia.  Reindeer are well known for the great distances they travel, more than any other terrestrial mammal. They can traverse more than 5,000 kilometers a year, most of which takes place in the days surrounding the Christmas holiday and is related to their temporary role as gift distributors for the Claus family.

Reindeer are primarily grazing herbivores whose diet consists of the leaves of willows and birches, mushrooms, cotton grass, sedges, other ground vegetation, milk, and cookies.  During the winter, lichens form an important component of the diet. Reindeer have a dramatic impact on communities of vegetation throughout their range, and are important prey species for large predators such as bears and wolves.

Reindeer play a prominent role in the cultures of many Arctic peoples, and are instrumental in delivering presents to children around the world. Health and happiness to all on this Christmas Eve, may you have a Merry Christmas!

Thanks to the Animal Diversity Web (ADW), part of the Zoology Department at the University of Michigan, the source for this information on reindeer. Read more about the reindeer at the ADW reindeer page.

All images (including the featured image) licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. Featured image by Kyle C. Joly via Animal Diversity Web.