Reindeer, famous in traditional lore for pulling Santa’s sleigh from the North Pole on Christmas Eve, are a special sight to see on an arctic expedition. Capable of survival in even the harshest temperatures and blizzards, reindeer are a circumpolar species that live in the northern part of the world. You're likely to see reindeer when you visit Spitsbergen, the Wildlife Capital of the Arctic.
A reindeer in Spitsbergen - Photo Credit: Brian Haynes - 2015
It was Clement C. Moore’s 1823 poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas, that introduced the world to the eight iconic holiday reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blixen. Rudolph wasn’t introduced until 1939, when department store Montgomery Ward released the famous children’s book, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Reindeer were a natural fit for this leading role, since they were used as draft animals in northern Eurasia. They sport a trotting gait that makes them appear to fly as they dash through the snow. As males shed their antlers in early December after mating season, it’s safe to assume that when the jolly gift-bringer was selecting his reindeer, he chose an all-female team of course, as female reindeer keep their antlers all winter long.
It’s not even such a stretch that a sleigh packed full of toys could be carried great distances by eight tiny reindeer pulling a miniature sleigh -- a single reindeer has been known to pull a 113 kilogram (250 lb) load over snow at high speed!
Get to Know the Reindeer, a Spitsbergen
There’s a lot more to this famous species than just traditional lore. On average, female reindeer weigh 100 kilograms (220 lbs) and males can weigh up to 118 kilograms (260 lbs), and are relatives of elk, caribou and several other species of deer.
Reindeer have the widest feet of any deer. In the winter, their hooves are sharp and provide traction on the ice and in summer, the pads on their feet become spongy to help them move quickly over soft tundra like you'll find in Spitsbergen.
Reindeer antlers are soft and flexible, with no two antlers ever the same. Reindeer shed and regenerate their antlers annually, though the female of the species keeps her antlers until the spring, allowing her to vie for food when pregnant. Antlers, made of keratin, assorted proteins and often bone in the middle, grow from the skull and are warm as they emerge from living tissue. After a reindeer sheds its antlers, they become a source of calcium and minerals for the rodents and other animals that consume them.
Reindeer Are Born to Run
Now, we’re not saying they can circumvent the globe in a single December’s eve, but reindeer are strong, swift runners. In fact, even a brand new reindeer calf runs faster than an Olympic runner! Their great speed enables them to outrun predators in the wide open tundra. Reindeer are also strong swimmers, swimming miles at a time.
Reindeer mate before Christmas and deliver one calf after a seven or eight month gestation period. The calves are able to run only hours after they are born, enabling them to escape from predators.
Reindeer are Experts in Arctic Survival
Built for surviving in the Arctic, reindeer keep their core body heat level in frigid temperatures by lowering the temperature in their legs to close to freezing. Their unique nostrils warm cold air before it enters their lungs and they have short tails that are unlikely to freeze. Facial hair grows long in the winter to protect their muzzles from snow.
When reindeer lie in the snow, their fur retains body heat, allowing them to sustain their core temperature even in extremely cold conditions. Thick layers of fur next to the skin are shielded by an outer layer of hollow hair that acts as an insulator.
It’s All in The Nose
They don’t really have red noses, but reindeer have an excellent sense of smell, which enables them to locate food under the snow and warns them against danger. Reindeer eat lichen that grow in sub-arctic climates, which helps keep their blood warm in cold temperatures.
Although they have a keen sense of smell, their eyesight is quite poor. Some species of reindeer have knees that make a clicking noise as they walk, making it easier for them to stay together in poor weather. Perhaps it is the reindeer’s knee tendons and not their hooves making the click-click-clicking on the roof tops on Christmas Eve!
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