Reindeer and Caribou
Nature Bulletin No. 400-A December 19, 1970
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
REINDEER AND CARIBOU
Clement Clarke Moore's only known poem is so familiar to American
children that its opening words, "'Twas the night before Christmas ",
instantly call up visions of a team of reindeer. Of all the animals in the
world Santa Claus could not have picked a better one for whisking his
sleigh load of toys down from the Far North on Christmas Eve. With
their broad hoofs, speed and endurance no other draft animal can
travel so far or so fast in the snow. Youngsters of the Old Stone Age
must have dreamed about reindeer, too, because we find wonderful
pictures of them drawn on the walls of caves, -- 30,000 years ago.
Reindeer is the name given the Old World Caribou by the early Lapps
or Finns and merely means "the animal that pastures. " Because it was
the only grazing animal known to these people of arctic Europe, no
further description was necessary. In Lapland and neighboring
countries where over the centuries it has become a domestic animal
there are still many people who depend on it almost entirely for their
livelihood. At one time the Old World Caribou ranged from the
Scandinavian Peninsula eastward to the Bering Straits but now the
only remaining wild ones are found in northern Siberia. Many
thousands of years ago, before it was domesticated, the "Reindeer
Men", as they are called by archeologists, followed the milling herds
of caribou as they moved back and forth between their summer and
To the people of Lapland as well as in northern Norway, Sweden,
Finland, Russia and Siberia, reindeer are the chief wealth and staff of
life. They stand 40 inches high at the shoulder and weigh 300 pounds.
Requiring no fences, barns, hay or other maintenance except herding,
they forage for themselves. When the summer diet of grass is covered
with snow they use their horns or sharp hoofs, which cut ice like
skates, to uncover shrubby willows, moss and especially the lichen
called "reindeer moss". A working reindeer in Lapland can carry 90
pounds or pull a 450-pound load forty miles a day in one of their boat-
A female gives about three cups of milk daily which is as rich as
cream. This is drunk fresh, churned into butter, or made into cheese.
The flesh is eaten, the bones cracked for marrow, the antlers used to
make tools, and the hair used to stuff mattresses. The hides are sewn
into parkas, gloves, trousers, shoes and tents using thread made from
the sinews. If an owner wants a drink of milk or to take a ride he goes
out and lassoes one.
The caribou of North America, quite similar to the reindeer and Old
World caribou, range from the North Woods and into the tundra, often
beyond the Arctic Circle in Alaska and Canada, farther north than any
other hoofed animal except the muskox. American caribou are divided
into three races or species -- the Barren Ground, the Woodland, and
the Mountain Caribou.
Unlike other members of the deer family both sexes of caribou have
picturesque antlers that sweep back and up and then bend forward.
The stags shed their antlers in autumn but the does carry theirs until
after the dappled fawns are born in May. They travel with a fast-
swinging trot that they can continue almost indefinitely and easily
outdistance wolves. Even when swimming they are very fast, keeping
pace with an expert canoeman. Still abundant in the Canadian Rockies
and the Barren Grounds, they once were vastly more numerous in the
past. The naturalist, Seton, described a single herd of 25 million in
Canada that took 4 days and nights to pass by in a stream 20 miles
We wish you a very MERRY CHRISTMAS with this 400th issue.
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Update: June 2012