Reindeer are, in my opinion, as important to Christmas as Santa Claus. This is evident in how often they’re included in Christmas stories, songs, poems, movies, etc; the season simply wouldn’t be the same without them. Do all of these stories ever make you forget that reindeer are real animals, though? As a child I equated them with mythical creatures (okay, fine, I still do this), but they’re a real species of deer. They inhabit the tundra and forests of Scandinavia, Russia, Iceland, Greenland, and North America (called caribou); and these very real deer have some fascinating characteristics.
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Built For the Cold
Seeing how reindeer inhabit areas with unforgiving weather patterns it makes sense that they’re built for the cold. A two-layer coat, a specialized nose, and intelligent hooves all help this species survive in the frigid north. Each of these characteristics is important and brings something unique to the table.
The color of a reindeer’s coat ranges from dark brown to white depending on where it lives. Coat color can act as camouflage from predators, but I’m more concerned about the two layers they have. The bottom layer, or undercoat, is made up of warm wool. The second, or top, layer consists of long, hollow hairs. These hairs trap air, which keeps body heat from escaping and guards against the wind. The hairs also keep the reindeer afloat when it swims.
From the Nose to the Hoof
A reindeer’s nose is also made to help with the cold, as it is completely covered in hair. Air is warmed as it enters the nostrils, making it easier on the lungs and better for breathing. Their noses are also really great at picking up scents, which is why you’ll see them traveling against the wind rather than with it. Reindeer use their noses to detect danger, find food, and determine direction.
Another helpful feature when it comes to the cold are a reindeer’s hooves. Like their noses, their hooves are covered in hair that provides a helpful grip as they walk over frozen ground covered in ice and snow. Their hooves are flat with spongy pads and two toes, which help push water while they swim. During the winter, the spongy pads harden – making it easier to dig into the ground for food and a better grip. They also have a dewclaw that acts as an additional hoof for added stability when traveling.
You know how black lights reveal a spectrum of light that we can’t otherwise see? Well, reindeer don’t need a black light; they are the only mammals that can see ultraviolet light. Why is this necessary? It helps them see through the glare of the sun across the frozen lands they inhabit. Think about how difficult it can be to see when the sun is reflecting off ice or snow. Reindeer need a way of distinguishing objects in the face of the glaring light, which is what their ultra vision provides for them.
When we see a deer with antlers, we’re usually pretty confident it’s a male. This is not the case with reindeer, however, because both the males and females grow antlers. Males typically shed their antlers in the winter or spring, while females shed theirs in the summer. As the antlers begin to grow, they are covered in a soft, furry skin known as velvet. This skin rubs off when the antlers finish growing. This process repeats each year.
Different species of deer use their antlers for different jobs. Antlers can be used for fighting and protection, or they can be used as a status signal to other deer. For reindeer, antlers provide a means of clearing snow to gain access to food sources. The antlers aren’t rendered completely useless once they’ve fallen off either. Many craftsmen use them to make items such as lamps and chandeliers, while rodents and other animals eat them for the minerals they provide.
I’m certain I’m not the only one who finds these animals to be fascinating and beautiful. They’ve been a part of Christmas lore since the early 1800s, so I’m sure someone else was bound to think so along the way. I know they’ll always be one of the things I love about Christmas. It’s hard to imagine it without them, and even though I know better, I can’t help but continue to think of reindeer as the magical, flying creatures that pull Santa’s sleigh.
Breyer, M. (2014, Dec. 8). 15 Things You Didn’t Know About Reindeer. Retrieved Dec. 6, 2016 from http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/stories/15-things-you-didnt-know-about-reindeer.
Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association. Reindeer Information: A Guide to These Loving Animals. Retrieved Dec. 6, 2016 from http://reindeer.ws/info.htm.
San Diego Zoo Global. (2016). Reindeer. Retrieved Dec. 6, 2016 from http://animals.sandiegozoo.org/animals/reindeer.