Posted by: Elizabeth Barilleaux | December 8, 2010

The Science Of Reindeer Games

Even if they’re not on Santa’s team, reindeer are still enchanted animals.  They’ve hung out with the wooly mammoth, the wooly rhino (yes, I said rhino) and the Neanderthals.  They weathered the warming of the ice age and evolved to handle 15 weeks of constant light followed by 8 weeks of complete darkness. They can transform their own feet into all-terrain hooves.  For six months out of the year they survive on moss.  So yeah, they’re kind of magic.

Several thousand years ago, human survival was tied up tightly with reindeer (a.k.a. caribou) existence.  Our arctic and sub-arctic ancestors followed the migrating herds, using the animals as a source of meat and fur.  Later on, humans managed to domesticate the reindeer and found they could also provide milk and transportation – and were much easier to catch and milk than a wooly rhino.  

Over time, reindeer have developed some unique features – for example, they are the only deer species where both males and females have antlers. These can develop at the rate of one inch per day, making them the fastest growing bones in the mammal kingdom. All reindeer shed and renew their antlers each year, but males lose them after breeding season (November/December).  Females hold onto their antlers until shortly after giving birth (March/April). Because all of Santa’s reindeer still have antlers in late December, it’s very likely that they are female, which explains St. Nick’s gift-delivering accuracy and efficiency.  It’s also possible that the team is a bunch of castrated males, but that seems very un-Santa like.

Reindeer also have specialized noses that warm and moisten the dry arctic air before it reaches their lungs.  Although their hearing and sight aren’t great, their sense of smell is so good they can find food buried beneath three feet of snow.

Scientists have also found that reindeer have switched off their body clocks to better handle the extreme light/dark conditions of the Arctic.  A normal mammalian body clock controls hormone cycles for sleeping and metabolism, but reindeer are more tuned in to the needs of the moment than the sun in the sky. 

One last interesting adaptation is the development of “clicking” heels.  Reindeer possess tendons that are positioned to rub over their ankle bones, creating a “clicking” sound as they walk. Biologists believe that this helps herd members keep track of each other in heavy blizzards.  Reindeer can also “adjust” their hooves to be sponge-like for extra traction on the soft, wet soil of the summer tundra or tough and sharp for digging into the winter snows. 

Aside from pulling The Sleigh, reindeer are still financially and environmentally important to folks living in the colder bits of the world like Norway, Canada and Alaska.  In these areas, thousands of reindeer are still managed in herds much like cattle in the US.    Warming earth temperatures and human encroachment, however, are taking a toll on their species.  The University of Alberta discovered in 2009 that worldwide reindeer populations have fallen by 60% within the last 30 years.  There is hope that those ever-adaptable deer will change with the times and adjust their migrations to match the earlier thaws.  Based on their track records, in fact, I think it’s likely they’ll be telling the next “intelligent species” on the planet “Yeah, it’s a real shame about those humans.  Did you hear the one about the flying sleigh….?”

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