There are nine subspecies of reindeer, six live on the tundra and three in northern woodland. Large populations of wild reindeer are still found in Norway, Siberia, Greenland, Alaska, and Canada.
Mountain Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus) are the ones found in northern Scandinavia – herded by the ‘Same’ (previously called ‘Lapps’).
Reindeer have never been fully domesticated, but a semi-nomadic lifestyle allowed the ‘Same’ to follow migrating herds and keep in close contact. A few castrated males were kept as draft animals – to pull sledges across the snow in winter.
The ‘Same’ tent was rather like the wigwam of American Plains Indians, and it was used when the reindeer moved regularly over the frozen land searching for grasses and lichen (‘reindeer moss’) buried under the snow. It could be carried easily on a sledge, and erected very quickly when the weather turned nasty.
- The nose is very efficient at warming air as the animal breathes in, and trapping moisture as it breathes out. This is important because the winter air is obviously very cold, and – even though there might be snow and ice everywhere – water retention is a problem.
- Reindeer fur is very good at trapping air close to the skin. It keeps the animal warm in winter (and was used to make excellent fur coats for the ‘Same’.
- Hooves adapt to the season, growing soft pads in the summer, and developing a horny edge to grip on the winter ice.
- When reindeer walk they make a clicking sound from their knee joints. The benefit of this only becomes obvious in a blizzard, when the sound allows herds to keep together while on the move.
Reindeer have become associated with Christmas, as has the Christmas tree. Dasher and Dancer, Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid, and Dunder and Blixem (later Donner and Blitzen) pull Santa Claus’s sledge. Rudolf (the Red-Nosed Reindeer) came later.
Edinburgh (Scotland) always has reindeer on show at Christmas. This year (2017) at Santa’s Gardens, West Princes Street Gardens, 12-23 December 10am-6pm. They are part of the 50-strong herd that lives wild in the Cairngorms.
Reindeer and Global Warming
Wild reindeer are suffering throughout their range, and the plight of the tundra caribou is well documented.
They are sticking to their ancient migratory timetable, but the weather is changing so that the nourishing early plant growth occurs before the calves are born. The young animals come into a world where there is only tougher ‘second growth’ – they are not thriving and many herds are in decline.
So – while enjoying a Christmas reindeer spectacle – think about global warming and the plight of the wild animals.