The reindeer is distributed throughout a number of northern locales. Reindeer are found throughout Scandinavia (including Iceland); in Finland; at Spitsbergen; in European parts of Russia including Northern Russia and Novaya Zemlya; in the Asian parts of Russia, to the Pacific Ocean; in North America (where it is called the caribou) on Greenland, Canada and Alaska. In 1952 reindeer were re-introduced to Scotland, as the natural stock had become extinct in the 10th century.
The weight of a female varies between 60 and 170 kg. In some subspecies of reindeer, the male is slightly larger; in others, the male can weigh up to 300 kg. 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 animals (reindeer) are shorter-legged and heavier than their wild counterparts (caribou). The caribou of North America can run at speeds up to 50 miles per hour and may travel 3,000 miles in a year.
Reindeers 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.
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.
The reindeer coat has two layers of fur, a dense woolly undercoat and longer-haired overcoat consisting of hollow, air-filled hairs. A caribou or reindeer swims easily and fast; migrating herds will not hesitate to swim across a large lake or broad river.
In the wild, most caribou migrate in large herds between their birthing habitat and their winter habitat. Their wide hooves help the animals move through snow and tundra; they also help propel the animal when it swims. About 1 million live in Alaska, and a comparable number live in northern Canada.
There are an estimated 5 million reindeer in Eurasia, mainly semi-domesticated. The last remaining European herds of the genetic wild reindeer are found in central Norway, mainly in the mountainous areas of Rondane, Hardangervidda, Dovre and Forollhogna. Other areas, such as Filefjell, have populations of reindeer that have been herded in the past but are now left free. Wild reindeer are considered to be very vulnerable to human disturbance, especially during the calving period in April.
Males usually split apart from
the group and become solitary, while the
remaining herd consists mostly of females,
usually a matriarchy.
In Canada, the woodland
caribou is under threat from extensive logging
operations. Because the caribou need the boreal
forest to survive, the destruction and little
protection of this habitat put this animal at
risk of extinction. Logging and logging roads
also attract deer and moose, which brings in
predators such as hunters, wolves and bears.