AskDefine | Define reindeer

Dictionary Definition

reindeer n : arctic deer with large antlers in both sexes; called reindeer in Eurasia and caribou in North America [syn: caribou, Greenland caribou, Rangifer tarandus]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. An Arctic and Subarctic-dwelling deer, a number of subspecies exist. The North American subspecies are known as caribou.



an Arctic and Subarctic-dwelling deer

Extensive Definition

The reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), also known as the caribou when wild in North America, is an Arctic and Subarctic-dwelling deer, widespread and numerous across the northern Holarctic Region.

Distribution and habitat

The reindeer is widespread and numerous in the northern Holarctic Region. Originally it was found in Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Russia, Mongolia and northern China north of the 50th latitude. In North America it was found in Alaska, Canada and the northern States from Washington to Maine. In the 19th century it was apparently still present in southern Idaho, and still lives on Isle Royale in Michigan. It also occurred naturally on Sakhalin, Greenland and probably even in historical time in Scotland and Ireland. During the late Pleistocene reindeer were found as far south as Nevada and Tennessee in North America and Spain in Europe. Today wild reindeer have disappeared from many areas within this large historical range, especially from the southern parts where it vanished almost everywhere. Large populations of wild reindeer are still found in Siberia, Greenland, Alaska and Canada. Domesticated reindeer are mostly found in northern Scandinavia, Russia and Iceland (where they were introduced by humans in the 18th century). The last wild reindeer in Europe are found in portions of southern Norway. The southern boundary of the species' natural range is approximately at 62° north latitude.
A few reindeer from Norway were introduced to the South Atlantic island of South Georgia in the beginning of the 20th century. Today there are two distinct herds still thriving there, permanently separated by glaciers. Their total numbers are no more than a few thousand. (The flag and the coat of arms of the territory contain an image of a reindeer.)
Around 4.000 reindeers have been introduced into the French subantarctic archipelago of Kerguelen islands.

Biology and behavior


The weight of a female varies between . In some subspecies of reindeer, the male is slightly larger; in others, the male can weigh up to . Both sexes grow antlers, which (in the Scandinavian variety) for old males fall off in December, for young males in the early spring, and for females, summer. The antlers typically have two separate groups of points (see image), a lower and upper. Domesticated reindeer are shorter-legged and heavier than their wild counterparts.
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.
Reindeer hooves adapt to the season: in the summer, when the tundra is soft and wet, the footpads become spongy and provide extra traction. In the winter, the pads shrink and tighten, exposing the rim of the hoof which cuts into the ice and crusted snow to keep the animal from slipping. This also enables them to dig down (an activity known as "cratering") through the snow to their favorite food, a lichen known as reindeer moss. The knees of many species of reindeer are adapted to produce a clicking sound as they walk. This is to alert other members of their herd of their presence, especially in blizzard conditions.
The reindeer coat has two layers of fur, a dense woolly undercoat and longer-haired overcoat consisting of hollow, air-filled hairs.


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. There is some evidence to suggest that on occasion they will also feed on lemmings, arctic char, and bird eggs


Mating occurs from late September or October to early November. Males battle for access to females. Two males will lock each other’s antlers together and try to push each other away. The most dominant males can collect as many as 15-20 females to mate with. A male will stop eating during this time and lose much of its body reserves. Calves may be born the following May or June. By 45 days the calves are able to graze and forage but continue suckling until the following fall and become independent from their mothers.


The reindeer travels the furthest of any terrestrial mammal. The caribou of North America can run at speeds up to and can travel as much as a year. Migrations can number in the thousands. The most extensive migrations occur in spring and fall. During fall migrations, the groups become smaller and the reindeer begin to mate. During the winter, reindeer travel to forested areas to forage under the snow. By spring, groups leave their winter grounds to go to the calving grounds. A reindeer can swim easily and quickly; migrating herds will not hesitate to swim across a large lake or broad river.

Reindeer and humans


Reindeer hunting by humans has a very long history and caribou/wild reindeer "may well be the species of single greatest importance in the entire anthropological literature on hunting."
Humans started hunting reindeer in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods and humans are today the main predator in many areas. Norway and Greenland have unbroken traditions of hunting wild reindeer from the ice age until the present day. In the non-forested mountains of central Norway, such as Jotunheimen, it is still possible to find remains of stone built trapping pits, guiding fences and bow rests, built especially for hunting reindeer. These can, with some certainty, be dated to the Migration Period although it is not unlikely that they have been in use since the Stone Age.
In absence of other great predators in significant populations, hunting is today a necessary means to control stocks to prevent overgrazing and eventually mass death from starvation. Norway is now preparing to apply for nomination as a World Heritage Site for areas with traces and traditions of reindeer hunting in Central Sørlandet (Southern Norway).
Wild caribou are still hunted in North America and Greenland. In the traditional lifestyle of the Inuit people, Northern First Nations people, Alaska Natives, and the Kalaallit of Greenland, the caribou is an important source of food, clothing, shelter and tools.

Reindeer husbandry

Reindeer have been herded for centuries by several Arctic and Subarctic people including the Sami and the Nenets. They are raised for their meat, hides, antlers and, to a lessening extent, for milk and transportation. Reindeer are not considered fully domesticated, as they generally roam free on pasture grounds. In traditional nomadic herding reindeer herders migrate with their herds between coast and inland areas according to an annual migration route, and herds are keenly tended. However, reindeer have never been bred in captivity, though they were tamed for milking as well as for use as draught animals or beasts of burden.
The use of caribou as semi-domesticated livestock in Alaska was introduced in the late 1800s by Sheldon Jackson as a means of providing a livelihood for Native peoples there. A regular mail run in Wales, Alaska used a sleigh drawn by caribou. In Alaska, caribou herders use satellite telemetry to track their herds, using online maps and databases to chart the herd's progress.


The reindeer has (or has had) an important economic role for all circumpolar peoples, including the Saami, Nenets, Khants, Evenks, Yukaghirs, Chukchi and Koryaks 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 owner may own hundreds or even 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 (such as wolves) following the wild caribou during their migrations.
Reindeer meat is popular in the Scandinavian countries. Reindeer meatballs are sold canned. Sautéed reindeer 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 an aphrodisiac, nutritional or medicinal supplement to Asian markets.
A company from Wales (UK) is also making paper from the cellulose fibres recovered from the dung of reindeer - which they call Reindeer Poo PaperTM.
Caribou have been a major source of subsistence for Canadian Inuit.

In History

The first written description of reindeer is in Julius Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico (chapter 6.26) from the 1st century BC. Here, it is described: There is an ox shaped like a stag. In the middle of its forehead a single horn grows between its ears, taller and straighter than the animal horns with which we are familiar. At the top this horn spreads out like the palm of a hand or the branches of a tree. The females are of the same form as the males, and their horns are the same shape and size.

Local names

The name Caribou comes, through French, from Mi'kmaq qalipu, meaning "snow-shoveler", referring to its habit of pawing through the snow for food. In Inuktitut the caribou is known by the name tuttuk (Labrador dialect).


  • Arctic reindeer (R. tarandus eogroenlandicus), an extinct subspecies found until 1900 in eastern Greenland.
  • Barren-ground Caribou (R. tarandus groenlandicus), found in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories of Canada and in western Greenland.
  • Finnish Forest Reindeer (R. tarandus fennicus), found in the wild in only two areas of the Fennoscandia peninsula of Northern Europe, in Finnish/Russian Karelia, and a small population in central south Finland. The Karelia population reaches far into Russia, however, so far that it remains an open question whether reindeer further to the east are R. t. fennicus as well.
  • Mountain/Wild Reindeer (R. tarandus tarandus), found in the Arctic tundra of Eurasia, including the Fennoscandia peninsula of Northern Europe.
  • Peary Caribou (R. tarandus pearyi), found in the northern islands of the Nunavut and the Northwest Territories of Canada.
  • Porcupine caribou or Grant's Caribou (R. tarandus granti) which are found in Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories of Canada.
  • Queen Charlotte Islands caribou (R. tarandus dawsoni) is an extinct subspecies that had once lived in Graham Island, British Columbia, Canada.
  • Svalbard Reindeer (R. tarandus platyrhynchus), found on the Svalbard islands of Norway, is the smallest subspecies of reindeer.
  • Woodland Caribou (R. tarandus caribou), or forest caribou, once found in the North American taiga (boreal forest) from Alaska to Newfoundland and Labrador and as far south as New England and Washington. Woodland Caribou have disappeared from most of their original southern range and are considered "threatened" where they remain, with the notable exception of the Migratory Woodland Caribou of northern Quebec and Labrador, Canada. The name of the Cariboo district of central British Columbia relates to their once-large numbers there, but they have almost vanished from that area in the last century. A herd is protected in the Caribou Mountains in Alberta. has a map of subspecies ranges.

Reindeer in Christmas

Santa Claus's reindeer

Santa Claus's sleigh is pulled by flying reindeer. These were first named in the 1823 poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, where they are called Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem. Dunder was later changed to Donder and — in other works — Donner (in German, "thunder"), and Blixem was later changed to Blitzen (German for "lightning"). Some consider Rudolph as part of the group as well, though he was not part of the original named work referenced previously. Rudolph was added to the story by Robert L. May in 1939 as "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer."


  • The caribou is the official national animal of Isle de Beaulieu.
  • The Canadian quarter features a depiction of a Caribou on one face.
  • Several Norwegian municipalities have one or more reindeer depicted in their coat-of-arms: Eidfjord, Porsanger, Rendalen, Tromsø, Vadsø and Vågå.
  • The historic province of Västerbotten in Sweden has a reindeer in its coat-of-arms. The present Västerbotten County has very different borders and uses the reindeer combined with other symbols in its coat-of-arms. The city of Piteå also has a reindeer.
  • The Caribou is the official provincial animal of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.
  • Caribou is a city in northern Maine.


reindeer in Old English (ca. 450-1100): Hrān
reindeer in Catalan: Ren
reindeer in Czech: Sob polární
reindeer in Danish: Rensdyr
reindeer in German: Ren
reindeer in Estonian: Põhjapõder
reindeer in Modern Greek (1453-): Τάρανδος
reindeer in Spanish: Rangifer tarandus
reindeer in Esperanto: Boaco
reindeer in Basque: Elur-orein
reindeer in Persian: گوزن شمالی
reindeer in French: Renne
reindeer in Scottish Gaelic: Fast
reindeer in Galician: Reno
reindeer in Ido: Rentiro
reindeer in Inuktitut: ᑐᒃᑐ/tuktu
reindeer in Icelandic: Hreindýr
reindeer in Italian: Rangifer tarandus
reindeer in Kalaallisut: Tuttut
reindeer in Latin: Tarandrus
reindeer in Lithuanian: Šiaurinis elnias
reindeer in Hungarian: Rénszarvas
reindeer in Dutch: Rendier
reindeer in Cree: ᐊᑎᐦᒄ
reindeer in Japanese: トナカイ
reindeer in Norwegian: Rein
reindeer in Norwegian Nynorsk: Reinsdyr
reindeer in Narom: Chèr du Nord
reindeer in Occitan (post 1500): Rangièr
reindeer in Polish: Renifer
reindeer in Portuguese: Rena
reindeer in Russian: Северный олень
reindeer in Simple English: Reindeer
reindeer in Serbian: Ирвас
reindeer in Finnish: Poro
reindeer in Swedish: Ren
reindeer in Thai: กวางเรนเดียร์
reindeer in Turkish: Ren geyiği
reindeer in Ukrainian: Північний олень
reindeer in Chinese: 驯鹿

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Cape elk, Siberian husky, Virginia deer, antelope, ass, beast of burden, buck, camel, camelopard, caribou, deer, deerlet, doe, draft animal, dromedary, eland, elephant, elk, fallow deer, fawn, gazelle, giraffe, gnu, hart, hartebeest, hind, horse, husky, kaama, llama, malamute, moose, mule, mule deer, musk deer, okapi, ox, pack horse, red deer, roe, roe deer, roebuck, sledge dog, springbok, stag, sumpter, sumpter horse, sumpter mule, wildebeest
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