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Temporal range: Pleistocene 620,000 BP[1] to present
20070818-0001-strolling reindeer.jpg
Scientific classification

R. tarandus
Binomial name
Rangifer tarandus
(Linnaeus, 1758)
Rangifer tarandus map.png
Reindeer habitat divided into North American and Eurasian parts

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The reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), also known as caribou in North America,[3] is a species of deer with circumpolar distribution, native to Arctic, Subarctic, tundra, boreal and mountainous regions of northern Europe, Siberia, and North America.[2] This includes both sedentary and migratory populations.

While overall widespread and numerous,[2] some of its subspecies are rare and at least one has already become extinct.[4][5]

Reindeer vary considerably in colour and size. In most populations, both sexes grow antlers annually, but females lack antlers in a few. Antlers are typically larger on males.

Hunting of wild reindeer and herding of semi-domesticated reindeer (for meat, hides, antlers, milk and transportation) are important to several Arctic and Subarctic peoples.[6] In parts of Sápmi, reindeer pull pulks.[7] In Christmas folklore, Santa Claus's flying reindeer are well known for pulling his sleigh.[8]

Name etymology

The name Rangifer, which Carl Linnaeus chose for the reindeer genus, was used by Albertus Magnus in his De animalibus, fol. Liber 22, Cap. 268: "Dicitur Rangyfer quasi ramifer". This word may go back to a Saami word raingo.[9] For the origin of the word tarandus, which Linnaeus chose as the specific epithet, he made reference to Ulisse Aldrovandi's Quadrupedum omnium bisulcorum historia fol. 859–863, Cap. 30: De Tarando (1621). However, Aldrovandi – and before him Konrad Gesner[10] – thought that rangifer and tarandus were two separate animals.[11] In any case, the tarandos name goes back to Aristotle and Theophrastus – see 'In history' below.

Because of its importance to many cultures, Rangifer tarandus and some of its subspecies have names in many languages. The name rein (-deer) is of Norse origin (Old Norse hreinn, which again goes back to Proto-Germanic *hrainaz and Proto-Indo-European *kroinos meaning "horned animal"). In the Uralic languages, Sami *poatsoj (in Northern Sami boazu, in Lule Sami boatsoj, in Pite Sami båtsoj, in Southern Sami bovtse), Meadow Mari pücö and Udmurt pudžej, all referring to domesticated reindeer, go back to *pocaw, an Iranian loan word deriving from Proto-Indo-European *peḱu-, meaning "cattle". The Finnish name poro may also stem from the same.[12]

The word deer was originally broader in meaning, but became more specific over time. In Middle English, der (Old English dēor) meant a wild animal of any kind. This was in contrast to cattle, which then meant any sort of domestic livestock that was easy to collect and remove from the land, from the idea of personal-property ownership (rather than real estate property) and related to modern chattel (property) and capital. Cognates of Old English dēor in other dead Germanic languages have the general sense of animal, such as Old High German tior, Old Norse djur or dȳr, Gothic dius, Old Saxon dier, and Old Frisian diar.[13]

The name caribou comes, through French, from Mi'kmaq qalipu, meaning "snow shoveler", referring to its habit of pawing through the snow for food.[14] In Inuktitut, spoken in eastern Arctic North America, the caribou is known by the name tuktu.[15][16]

Taxonomy and evolution

Current classifications of Rangifer tarandus, either with prevailing taxonomy on subspecies, designations based on ecotypes, and natural population groupings, fail to capture "the variability of caribou across their range in Canada" needed for effective species conservation and management.[17] "Across the range of a species, individuals may display considerable morphological, genetic, and behavioural variability reflective of both plasticity and adaptation to local environments."[18] COSEWIC developed Designated Unit (DU) attribution to add to classifications already in use.[17]

The species taxonomic name Rangifer tarandus was defined by Carl Linnaeus in 1758. The subspecies taxonomic name, Rangifer tarandus caribou was defined by Gmelin in 1788.

Based on Banfield's often-cited A Revision of the Reindeer and Caribou, Genus Rangifer (1961),[19] R. t. caboti (Labrador caribou), R. t. osborni (Osborn's caribou—from British Columbia) and R. t. terraenovae (Newfoundland caribou) were considered invalid and included in R. t. caribou.

Some recent authorities have considered them all valid, even suggesting that they are quite distinct. In their book entitled Mammal Species of the World, American zoologist Don E. Wilson and DeeAnn Reeder agree with Valerius Geist, specialist on large North American mammals, that this range actually includes several subspecies.[20][21][22][Notes 1]

Geist (2007) argued that the "true woodland caribou, the uniformly dark, small-maned type with the frontally emphasized, flat-beamed antlers", which is "scattered thinly along the southern rim of North American caribou distribution" has been incorrectly classified. He affirms that "true woodland caribou is very rare, in very great difficulties and requires the most urgent of attention."[20]

In 2005, an analysis of mtDNA found differences between the caribou from Newfoundland, Labrador, south-western Canada and south-eastern Canada, but maintained all in R. t caribou.[23]

Mallory and Hillis argued that, "Although the taxonomic designations reflect evolutionary events, they do not appear to reflect current ecological conditions. In numerous instances, populations of the same subspecies have evolved different demographic and behavioural adaptations, while populations from separate subspecies have evolved similar demographic and behavioural patterns... "[U]nderstanding ecotype in relation to existing ecological constraints and releases may be more important than the taxonomic relationships between populations."[24]


The canonical Mammal Species of the World (3rd ed.) recognizes fourteen subspecies, two of which are extinct.[25]

subspecies of Rangifer tarandus
subspecies name migratory division[25] range weight of male
R. t. buskensis[21] (1915) woodland[25] Russia and neighbouring regions no data
R. t. caboti** (G. M. Allen, 1914)[25][Notes 2][20][21]
R. t. caribou (Gmelin, 1788)[19] Woodland caribou – woodland caribou, includes migratory woodland caribou sedentary[Notes 3] boreal forest south Canada and northwest U.S. mainland[26] largest
R. t. granti[19] Porcupine caribou, Grant's caribou migratory tundra Alaska, United States, and Yukon, Canada
R. t. fennicus (Lönnberg, 1909) Finnish forest reindeer woodland[25] northwest Russia, and Finland[7][26] 150–250 kg (330–550 lb)
R. t. groenlandicus (Borowski, 1780)[19] barren-ground caribou migratory tundra Nunavut and Northwest Territories, Canada, and western Greenland 150 kg (330 lb)
R. tarandus osborni** (J. A. Allen, 1902)[Notes 2][20][21] Osborn's caribou British Columbia, Canada no data
R. t. pearsoni (Lydekker, 1903)[21] Novaya Zemlya reindeer island subspecies make local movements Novaya Zemlya, Russia[26] no data
R. t. pearyi (J. A. Allen, 1902)[19] Peary caribou island subspecies make local movements high arctic islands of Nunavut and Northwest Territories, Canada[26] smallest in North America
R. t. phylarchus (Hollister, 1912)[21] Kamchatka reindeer woodland[25] Kamchatka and regions bordering the Sea of Okhotsk, Russia[26] no data
R. t. platyrhynchus (Vrolik, 1829) Svalbard reindeer island subspecies make local movements Svalbard islands of Norway[26] smallest subspecies
R. t. sibiricus (Murray, 1866)[21] Siberian tundra reindeer Siberia, Russia[26] no data
R. t. tarandus (Linnaeus, 1758) – caribou Mountain reindeer – caribou tundra or mountain Arctic tundra of Fennoscandia peninsula in Norway[7][26] no data
R. t. terraenovae** (Bangs, 1896)[25][Notes 2][20][21]
R. t. valentinae**[25] Ural Mountains, Russia, and Altai Mountains, Mongolia[26] no data
Extinct subspecies of Rangifer tarandus
subspecies name migratory tundra range height of male extinct since
R. t. dawsoni (Thompson-Seton, 1900)[19] Queen Charlotte Islands caribou extinct no Queen Charlotte Islands no data 1910
R. t. eogroenlandicus Arctic reindeer extinct no eastern Greenland no data 1900

The table above includes R. tarandus caboti (Labrador caribou), R. tarandus osborni (Osborn's caribou – from British Columbia) and R. tarandus terraenovae (Newfoundland caribou). Based on a review in 1961,[19] these were considered invalid and included in R. tarandus caribou, but some recent authorities have considered them all valid, even suggesting that they are quite distinct.[20][21] An analysis of mtDNA in 2005 found differences between the caribous from Newfoundland, Labrador, south-western Canada and south-eastern Canada, but maintained all in R. tarandus caribou.[23]

There are seven subspecies of reindeer of which only two are found in Fennoscandia: Eurasian tundra (or mountain) reindeer (R. t. tarandus) in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia and Eurasian forest reindeer R. t. fennicus in Finland and Russia.[7]

Grubb (2005) noted that subspecies and divisions below** are considered valid based on Banfield (1961) and considerably modified by Geist (1998):[25]

Woodland caribou division:

  • R. t. buskensis
  • R. t. dawsoni
  • R. t. fennicus
  • R. t. phylarchus
  • R. t. valentinae

Populations transitional between caribou and tarandus divisions includes osborni.

Tarandus division, barren-ground caribou or reindeer

  • R. t. caboti (G.M. Allen, 1914)[25]
  • R. t. groenlandicus
  • R. t. pearsoni
  • R. t. sibiricus
  • R. t. terraenovae

Platyrhynchus division

  • R. t. pearyi or Peary caribou
  • R. t. platyrhynchus or Svalbard reindeer

Some of the Rangifer tarandus subspecies may be further divided by ecotype depending on several behavioural factors – predominant habitat use (northern, tundra, mountain, forest, boreal forest, forest-dwelling, woodland, woodland (mountain), woodland (boreal), woodland (migratory), spacing (dispersed or aggregated), and migration (sedentary or migratory).[27][28][29]

The "glacial-interglacial cycles of the upper Pleistocene had a major influence on the evolution" of Rangifer tarandus and other Arctic and sub-Arctic species. Isolation of Rangifer tarandus in refugia during the last glacial – the Wisconsin in North America and the Weichselian in Eurasia-shaped "intraspecific genetic variability" particularly between the North American and Eurasian parts of the Arctic.[3]

In 1986 Kurtén reported that the oldest reindeer fossil was an "antler of tundra reindeer type from the sands of Süssenborn" in the Pleistocene (Günz) period (680,000 to 620,000 BP).[1] By the 4-Würm period (110-70,000 to 12–10,000) its European range was very extensive. Reindeer occurred in <templatestyles src="Template:Blockquote/styles.css" />

... Spain, Italy and southern Russia. Reindeer [was] particularly abundant in the Magdalenian deposits from the late part of the 4-Wurm just before the end of the Ice Age: at that time and at the early Mesolithic it was the game animal for many tribes. The supply began to get low during the Mesolithic, when reindeers retired to the north.

— Kurtén 1968:170

"In spite of the great variation, all the Pleistocene and living reindeer belong to the same species."[1]

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.[citation needed]

Biology and behaviour

Physical characteristics

Reindeer losing the velvet layer under which a new antler is growing, an annual process

In most populations both sexes grow antlers; the reindeer is the only cervid species in which females grow them as well as males.[30] In the Scandinavian populations, old males' antlers fall off in December, young males' fall off in the early spring, and females' fall off in the summer. The antlers typically have two separate groups of points, lower and upper. There is considerable variation between subspecies in the size of the antlers (e.g. they are rather small and spindly in the northernmost subspecies),[31] but on average the bull reindeer's antlers are the second largest of any extant deer, after the moose. In the largest subspecies, the antlers of large males can range up to 100 cm (39 in) in width and 135 cm (53 in) in beam length. They have the largest antlers relative to body size among living deer species.[30]

The colour of the fur varies considerably, both between individuals and depending on season and subspecies. Northern populations, which usually are relatively small, are whiter, while southern populations, which typically are relatively large, are darker. This can be seen well in North America, where the northernmost subspecies, the Peary caribou, is the whitest and smallest subspecies of the continent, while the southernmost subspecies, the woodland caribou, is the darkest and largest.[31] The coat has two layers of fur: a dense woolly undercoat and longer-haired overcoat consisting of hollow, air-filled hairs.

Like moose, 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 sponge-like 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 it from slipping. This also enables them to dig down (an activity known as "cratering")[32][33] through the snow to their favorite food, a lichen known as reindeer moss.


The females usually measure 162–205 cm (64–81 in) in length and weigh 80–120 kg (180–260 lb).[34] The males (or "bulls") are typically larger (to an extent which varies between the different subspecies), measuring 180–214 cm (71–84 in) in length and usually weighing 159–182 kg (351–401 lb).[34] Exceptionally large males have weighed as much as 318 kg (701 lb).[34] Shoulder height is typically 85 to 150 cm (33 to 59 in), and the tail is 14 to 20 cm (5.5 to 7.9 in) long. The reindeer from Svalbard are the smallest. They are also relatively short-legged and may have a shoulder height of as little as 80 cm (31 in),[35] thereby following Allen's rule.

The knees of many species of reindeer are adapted to produce a clicking sound as they walk.[36] The sounds originate in the tendons of the knees and may be audible from ten meters away. The frequency of the knee-clicks is one of a range of signals that establish relative positions on a dominance scale among reindeer. "Specifically, loud knee-clicking is discovered to be an honest signal of body size, providing an exceptional example of the potential for non-vocal acoustic communication in mammals."[37]

A study by researchers from University College London in 2011 revealed that reindeer can see light with wavelengths as short as 320 nm (i.e. in the ultraviolet range), considerably below the human threshold of 400 nm. It is thought that this ability helps them to survive in the Arctic, because many objects that blend into the landscape in light visible to humans, such as urine and fur, produce sharp contrasts in ultraviolet.[38] A study at the University of Tromsø has confirmed that "Arctic reindeer eyes change in colour through the seasons from gold through to blue to help them better detect predators...".[39]


Swedish reindeer

Reindeer are ruminants, having a four-chambered stomach. They mainly eat lichens in winter, especially reindeer moss – a unique adaptation among mammals – and they are the only animals except for some gastropods in which the enzyme lichenase, which breaks down lichenin to glucose, has been found.[40] 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, especially in the spring when they are nutritionally stressed,[41] they will also feed on small rodents such as lemmings,[42] fish such as Arctic char, and bird eggs.[43] Reindeer herded by the Chukchis have been known to devour mushrooms enthusiastically in late summer.[44]

Reproduction and life-cycle

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Mating occurs from late September 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 his body reserves.[45]

Calves may be born the following May or June. After 45 days, the calves are able to graze and forage but continue suckling until the following autumn when they become independent from their mothers.[45]

Social structure, migration and range

The size of the antlers plays a significant role in establishing the hierarchy in the group.[46]

Some populations of the North American caribou, for example many herds in the subspecies barren-ground caribou and some woodland caribou in Ungava and Labrador, migrate the farthest of any terrestrial mammal, travelling up to 5,000 km (3,000 mi) a year, and covering 1,000,000 km2 (400,000 sq mi).[2][47] Other North American populations, the woodland caribou (boreal) for example, are largely sedentary.[48] In Europe populations have a shorter migration. Island herds such as the subspecies R. t. pearsoni and R. t. platyrhynchus make local movements. Migrating reindeer can be negatively affected by parasite loads. Severely infected individuals are weak and probably have shortened lifespans, but parasite levels vary between populations. Infections create an effect known as culling: infected migrating animals are less likely to complete the migration.[49]

Normally travelling about 19–55 km (12–34 mi) a day while migrating, the caribou can run at speeds of 60–80 km/h (37–50 mph).[2] Young caribou can already outrun an Olympic sprinter when only a day old.[50] During the spring migration smaller herds will group together to form larger herds of 50,000 to 500,000 animals, but during autumn migrations the groups become smaller, and the reindeer begin to mate. During 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, normally at about 6.5 km/h (4 mph) but if necessary at 10 km/h (6 mph), and migrating herds will not hesitate to swim across a large lake or broad river.[2]

As an adaptation to their Arctic environment, they have lost their circadian rhythm.[51]


Distribution and habitat

Originally, the reindeer was found in Scandinavia, eastern Europe, Greenland, Russia, Mongolia, and northern China north of the 50th latitude. In North America, it was found in Canada, Alaska, and the northern conterminous USA from Washington to Maine. In the 19th century, it was apparently still present in southern Idaho.[2] Even in historical times, it probably occurred naturally in Ireland. During the late Pleistocene era, reindeer occurred as far south as Nevada and Tennessee in North America, and as far south as Spain in Europe.[46][52] Today, wild reindeer have disappeared from these areas, especially from the southern parts, where it vanished almost everywhere. Large populations of wild reindeer are still found in Norway, Finland, Siberia, Greenland, Alaska, and Canada.

According to the Grubb (2005), Rangifer tarandus is "circumboreal in the tundra and taiga" from "Svalbard, Norway, Finland, Russia, Alaska (USA) and Canada including most Arctic islands, and Greenland, south to northern Mongolia, China (Inner Mongolia; now only domesticated or feral?), Sakhalin Islands, and USA (Northern Idaho and the Great Lakes region). Reindeer were introduced to, and feral in, Iceland, Kerguelen Islands, South Georgia Island, Pribilof Islands, St. Matthew Island."[25]

There is strong regional variation in Rangifer herd size. There are large population differences among individual herds, and the size of individual herds has varied greatly since 1970. The largest of all herds (Taimyr, Russia) has varied between 400,000 and 1,000,000; the second largest herd (George River, Canada) has varied between 28,000 and 385,000.

While Rangifer is a widespread and numerous genus in the northern Holarctic, being present in both tundra and taiga (boreal forest),[46] by 2013, many herds had "unusually low numbers" and their winter ranges in particular were smaller than they used to be.[53] Caribou and reindeer numbers have fluctuated historically, but many herds are in decline across their range.[54] This global decline is linked to climate change for northern, migratory herds and industrial disturbance of habitat for non-migratory herds.[55]


Reindeer standing on snow to avoid blood-sucking insects.

A variety of predators prey heavily on reindeer. Golden eagles prey on calves and are the most prolific hunter on calving grounds.[56] Wolverines will take newborn calves or birthing cows, as well as (less commonly) infirm adults. Brown bears and polar bears prey on reindeer of all ages, but like the wolverines they are most likely to attack weaker animals, such as calves and sick deer, since healthy adult reindeer can usually outpace a bear. The gray wolf is the most effective natural predator of adult reindeer and sometimes takes large numbers, especially during the winter. Some wolf packs as well as individual grizzly bears in Canada may follow and live off of a particular reindeer herd year round.[citation needed]

As carrion, reindeer are fed on opportunistically by foxes, hawks, and ravens. Blood-sucking insects, such as black flies and mosquitoes, are a plague to reindeer during the summer and can cause enough stress to inhibit feeding and calving behaviors.[57] An adult reindeer will lose perhaps about 1 liter (about 2 US pints) of blood to biting insects for every week it spends in the tundra.[50] The population numbers of some of these predators is influenced by the migration of reindeer.[citation needed]

In one case, the entire body of a reindeer was found in the stomach of a Greenland shark, a species found in the far northern Atlantic, although this was possibly a case of scavenging, considering the dissimilarity of habitats between the ungulate and the large, slow-moving fish.[58]

Rangifer tarandus by country


In 2013, the Taimyr herd in Russia was the largest herd in the world. In 2000, the herd increased to 1,000,000 but by 2009, there were 700,000 animals.[53][59] In the 1950s, there were 110,000.[60]

There are three large herds of migratory tundra wild reindeer in central Siberia's Yakutia region: Lena-Olenek, Yana-Indigirka and Sundrun herds. While the population of the Lena-Olenek herd is stable, the others are declining.[60]

Further east again, the Chukotka herd is also in decline. In 1971, there were 587,000 animals. They recovered after a severe decline in 1986, to only 32,200 individuals, but their numbers fell again.[61] According to Kolpashikov, by 2009 there were less than 70,000.[60]

North America

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Approximate range of caribou subspecies in North America. Overlap is possible for contiguous range. 1.R. t. caribou subdivided into ecotypes: woodland (boreal), woodland (migratory), woodland (montane), 2.R. t. dawsoni extinct 1907, 3. R. t. granti, 4.R. t. groenlandicus, 5. R. t. groenlandicus/pearyi 6. R. t. pearyi

There are four living subspecies of R. tarandus, locally known in North America as caribou: R. t. granti (Porcupine caribou), R. t. caribou subdivided into ecotypes: woodland (boreal), woodland (migratory), woodland (montane), R. t. groenlandicus and R. t. pearyi.

In North America, because of its vast range in a wide diversity of ecosystems, the subspecies Rangifer tarandus caribou is further distinguished by a number of ecotypes, including boreal woodland caribou, mountain woodland caribou and migratory woodland caribou).[27][28][29] Populations—caribou that do not migrate—or herds—those that do migrate—may not fit into narrow ecotypes. For example, Banfield's 1961 classification of the migratory George River Caribou Herd, in the Ungava region of Quebec, as subspecies Rangifer tarandus caribou, woodland caribou, remains—although other woodland caribou are mainly sedentary.

Rangifer tarandus is "endangered in Canada in regions such as south-east British Columbia at the Canadian-USA border, along the Columbia, Kootenay and Kootenai rivers and around Kootenay Lake. Rangifer tarandus is endangered in the United States in Idaho and Washington. R. t. pearyi is on the IUCN endangered list." According to Geist, the "woodland caribou is highly endangered throughout its distribution right into Ontario."[25]

United States

Although there are remnant populations of R. t. caribou boreal woodland caribou in the northern United States, most of U.S. caribou populations are in Alaska. There are four herds in Alaska, the Western Arctic herd, Teshekpuk Lake herd, the Central Arctic herd and the Porcupine herd.

The Western Arctic Caribou Herd is the largest of the three. The Western Arctic herd reached a low of 75,000 in the mid-1970s. In 1997 the 90,000 WACH changed their migration and wintered on Seward Peninsula. Alaska's reindeer herding industry has been concentrated on Seward Peninsula ever since the first shipment of reindeer was imported from eastern Siberia in 1892 as part of the Reindeer Project, an initiative to replace whale meat in the diet of the indigenous people of the region.[62] For many years it was believed that the geography of the peninsula would prevent migrating caribou from mingling with domesticated reindeer who might otherwise join caribou herds when they left an area.[62][63] However, in 1997 the domesticated reindeer joined the Western Arctic Caribou Herd on their summer migration and disappeared.[64] The WACH reached a peak of 490,000 in 2003 and then declined to 325,000 in 2011.[34][65]

In 2008, the Teshekpuk Lake herd had 64,107 animals and the Central Arctic herd had 67,000.[66][67]

Male Porcupine caribou R. t. granti

The Porcupine caribou or Grant's caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti) is a subspecies with a vast range that includes northeastern Alaska and the Yukon, and is therefore cooperatively managed by government agencies and aboriginal peoples from both countries. It resembles another subspecies, barren-ground caribou (R. t. groenlandicus).[21][23]

Migratory caribou herds are named after their birthing grounds, in this case the Porcupine River, which runs through a large part of the range of the Porcupine herd. Though numbers fluctuate, the herd comprises approximately 169,000 animals (based on a July 2010 photocensus).[34] 2,500 km (1,600 mi) a year land migration between their winter range and calving grounds on the Beaufort Sea, is the longest of any land mammal on earth. They are the traditional food of the Gwich'in, a First Nations/Alaska Native people, the Inupiat, Inuvialuit, Hän, and Northern Tutchone. There is currently controversy over whether possible future oil drilling on the coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, encompassing much of the Porcupine caribou calving grounds, will have a severe negative impact on the caribou population or whether the caribou population will grow.

Unlike many other Rangifer tarandus subspecies and their ecotypes, the Porcupine herd is stable at relatively high numbers, but the 2013 photo-census was not counted by January 2014.[60] The peak population in 1989 of 178,000 animals was followed by a decline by 2001 to 123,000. However, by 2010, there was a recovery and an increase to 169,000 animals.[60][68]



The barren-ground caribou subspecies R. t. groenlandicus,,[19] a long-distance migrant, includes large herds in the Northwest Territories and in Nunavut, for example the Beverly, the Ahiak and Qamanirjuaq herds. In 1996, the population of the Ahiak herd was approximately 250,000 animals.

Ahiak, Beverly, Qamanirjuaq herds

The Ahiak, Beverly, Qamanirjuaq herds are barren-ground caribou.

The Beverly herd of barren-ground caribou, Thelon River, Nunavut.[31]

"The Beverly herd’s crossing of the Thelon River to its traditional calving grounds near Beverly Lake was part of the lives of the Dene aboriginal people for 8000 years, as revealed by an unbroken archaeological record of deep layers of caribou bones and stone tools in the banks of the Thelon River (Gordon 2005)."[69][70] The Beverly Herd (located primarily in Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories; portions in Nunavut, Manitoba, Alberta) and the Qamanirjuaq Herd (located primarily in Manitoba, Nunavut; portions in southeastern NWT, northeastern Saskatchewan) fall under the auspices of the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board.[71] The Beverly herd, whose range spans the tundra from northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan and well into the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, had a peak population in 1994 of 276,000[72][73] or 294,000,[60] but by 2011 there were approximately 124,000 caribou in the Beverly herd and 83,300 in the Ahiak herd. The calving grounds of the Beverly caribou herd are located around Queen Maud Gulf but the herd shifted its traditional birthing area.[74] Caribou management agencies are concerned that deterioration and disturbance of habitat along with "parasites, predation and poor weather"[72] are contributing to a cycling down of most caribou populations. It was suggested the Ahiak and Beverly herds switched calving grounds and the Beverly may have moved "near the western Queen Maud Gulf coast to the north of the herd’s "traditional" calving ground in the Gary Lakes area north of Baker Lake."[75] The "Beverly herd may have declined (similar to other Northwest Territories herds), and cows switched to the neighbouring Ahiak herd to maintain the advantages of gregarious calving."[76] By 2011 there were approximately 124,000 caribou in the combined Beverly/Ahiak herd which represents a "50% or a 75% decline from the 1994 population estimate for the Beverly Herd."[60]

The barren-ground caribou population on Southampton Island, Nunavut declined by almost 75%, from about 30,000 caribou in 1997 to 7,800 caribou in 2011.[60][77]

Peary caribou on Baffin Island

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The Peary caribou is a relatively small and pale subspecies found in the tundra of far northern North America. Unsurprisingly, it is part of the group known as tundra reindeer.

The R. t. pearyi (Peary caribou), the smallest subspecies in North America, known as Tuktu in Inuktitut, are found in the northern islands of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. They remain at low numbers after severe declines. On Baffin Island, the largest Arctic island, the population of Peary caribou peaked in the early 1990s to approximately 60,000 to 180,000.[78] By 2012, in northern Baffin Island caribou numbers were considered to be at a "low in the cycle after a high in the 1990s" and in south Baffin Island, the population was estimated as between 1,065 and 2,067.[79]

Northwest Territories

There are four barren-ground caribou herds in the Northwest Territories—Cape Bathurst, Bluenose West, Bluenose East and Bathurst.[60] The Bluenose East caribou herd began a recovery with a population of approximately 122,000 in 2010.[80] which is being credited to the establishment of Tuktut Nogait National Park.[81] According to T. Davison 2010, CARMA 2011, the three other herds "declined 84–93% from peak sizes in the mid-1980s and 1990s.[60]

R. t. caribou

The subspecies R. t. caribou commonly known as woodland caribou, is divided into ecotypes: boreal woodland caribou (also known as forest-dwelling), woodland caribou (boreal), mountain woodland caribou, and migratory woodland caribou.[clarification needed] Caribou are classified by ecotype depending on several behavioural factors – predominant habitat use (northern, tundra, mountain, forest, boreal forest, forest-dwelling), spacing (dispersed or aggregated) and migration (sedentary or migratory).[27][28][29]

In Canada, the national meta-population of the sedentary boreal ecotype spans the boreal forest from the Northwest Territories to Labrador. They prefer lichen-rich mature forests[82] and mainly live in marshes, bogs, lakes, and river regions.[83][84] The historic range of the boreal woodland caribou covered over half of present-day Canada,[85] stretching from Alaska to Newfoundland and Labrador and as far south as New England, Idaho, and Washington. Woodland caribou have disappeared from most of their original southern range. The boreal woodland was designated as threatened in 2002.[86] In 2011 there were approximately 34,000 boreal caribou in 51 ranges remaining in Canada.[87]

George River caribou herd (GRCH)

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The migratory George River caribou herd (GRCH), in the Ungava region of Quebec and Labrador in eastern Canada was once the world's largest herd with 800,000–900,000 animals. Although it is categorized as a subspecies Rangifer tarandus caribou,[19] the woodland caribou, the GRCH is migratory woodland caribou and like the barren-ground caribou it's ecotype may be tundra caribou, Arctic, northern of migratory, not forest-dwelling and sedentary like most woodland caribou ecotypes. It is unlike most woodland caribou in that it is not sedentary. Since the mid-1990s, the herd declined sharply and by 2010, it was reduced to 74,131—a drop of up to 92%.[88] A 2011 survey confirms a continuing decline of the George River migratory caribou herd population. By 2012 it was estimated to be about 27,600 animals, down from 385,000 in 2001 and 74,131 in 2010."[53][88][89]

Leaf River caribou herd (LRCH)
Leaf River caribou
Caribou crossing Leaf River
Leaf River and caribou

The Leaf River caribou herd (LRCH),[90] another migratory forest-tundra ecotype of the boreal woodland caribou, near the coast of Hudson Bay, increased from 270 000 individuals in 1991 to 628 000 in 2001.[91] By 2011 the herd had decreased to 430 000 caribou.[53][88][92] According to an international study on caribou populations, the George River and Leaf River herds, and other herds that migrate from Nunavik, Quebec and insular Newfoundland, could be threatened with extinction by 2080.[89]

Queen Charlotte Islands caribou

The Queen Charlotte Islands caribou (R. tarandus dawsoni) from the Queen Charlotte Islands was believed to represent a distinct subspecies. It became extinct at the beginning of the 20th century. However, recent DNA analysis from mitochondrial DNA of the remains from those reindeer suggest that the animals from the Queen Charlotte Islands were not genetically distinct from the Canadian mainland reindeer subspecies.[5]


According to Kolpashikov et al. (2013) there were four main populations of wild R. t. groenlandicus, barren-ground caribou, in west Greenland in 2013.[60] The Kangerlussuaq-Sisimiut caribou herd, the largest had a population of around 98,000 animals in 2007.[60][93] The "second largest, Akia-Maniitsoq decreased from an estimated 46,000 in 2001 to about 17,400 in 2010. According to Cuyler, "one possible cause might be the topography, which prevents hunter access in the former while permitting access in the latter."[60]


The last remaining wild tundra reindeer in Europe are found in portions of southern Norway.[94] In southern Norway in the mountain ranges, there are about 30,000–35,000 reindeer with 23 different populations. The largest herd with about 10,000 individuals, is at Hardangervidda. By 2013 the greatest challenges to management were "loss of habitat and migration corridors to piecemeal infrastructure development and abandonment of reindeer habitat as a result of human activities and disturbance."[53]

Norway is now preparing to apply for nomination as a World Heritage Site for areas with traces and traditions of reindeer hunting in Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park, Reinheimen National Park and Rondane National Park in Central Sør-Norge (Southern Norway). There is in these parts of Norway an unbroken tradition of reindeer hunting from post-glacial Stone Age until today.[citation needed]

Svalbard reindeer

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Characteristically small and relatively short-legged reindeer from Svalbard

The Svalbard reindeer subspecies R. t. platyrhynchus from Svalbard island is very small compared to other subspecies (a phenomenon known as insular dwarfism), with females having a length of approximately 150 cm (59 in), and a weight around 53 kg (117 lb) in the spring and 70 kg (150 lb) in the autumn.[35] Males are approximately 160 cm (63 in) long, and weigh around 65 kg (143 lb) in the spring and 90 kg (200 lb) in the autumn.[35] The reindeer from Svalbard are also relatively short-legged and may have a shoulder height of as little as 80 cm (31 in),[35] thereby following Allen's rule.

Svalbard reindeer (R. t. platyrhynchus)

The Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus subspecies, in Norway referred to as the Svalbard reindeer, seems to have evolved from large European reindeer.[4] The Svalbard reindeer is special in several ways. Svalbard reindeer has peculiarities in its metabolism. The skeleton shows a remarkable relative shortening of the legs, thus parallelling many extinct insular deer species.[95]


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The Finnish forest reindeer (R. tarandus fennicus), is 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.[citation needed] By 2007 reindeer experts were concerned about the collapse of the wild Finnish forest reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus) in the eastern province of Kainuu.[96] During the peak year of 2001, the Finnish forest reindeer population in Kainuu was established at 1,700. In a March 2007 helicopter count, only 960 individuals were detected.


East Iceland has a small herd of about 2500–3000 animals.[97] Iceland (increasing or are stable at high numbers 2013) Iceland: Reindeer were introduced to Iceland (17) in the late 1700s[98] cited in.[53] The Icelandic reindeer population in July 2013 was estimated at approximately 6000. With a hunting quota of 1,229 animals, the winter 2013–2014 population is expected to be around 4800 reindeer[53]

British overseas territory experiment

Southernmost reindeer: South Georgian reindeer with velvet-covered antlers

A few reindeer from Norway were introduced to the South Atlantic island of South Georgia in the beginning of the 20th century. The South Georgian reindeer total some 2,600 animals in two distinct herds separated by glaciers. Although the flag and the coat of arms of the territory contain an image of a reindeer, a decision was taken in 2011 to completely eradicate the animals from the island because of the environmental damage they cause.[99][100]

French overseas territory experiment

Around 4000 reindeer have been introduced into the French sub-Antarctic archipelago of Kerguelen Islands.

Conservation status

While overall widespread and numerous,[2] some subspecies are rare and at least one has already gone extinct.[4][5]

Reindeer and humans

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Reindeer pulling a sled in Russia

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The reindeer has 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 the Bronze and Iron Ages. 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 sale of fur and meat 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.[citation needed]

Reindeer meat is popular in the Scandinavian countries. Reindeer meatballs are sold canned. Sautéed reindeer is the best-known dish in Lapland. In Alaska and Finland, reindeer sausage is sold in supermarkets and grocery stores. Reindeer meat is very tender and lean. It can be prepared fresh, but also dried, salted, hot- and cold-smoked. In addition to meat, almost all internal organs of reindeer can be eaten, some being traditional dishes.[101] Furthermore, Lapin Poron liha, fresh reindeer meat completely produced and packed in Finnish Lapland, is protected in Europe with PDO classification.[102][103]

Reindeer antler is powdered and sold as an aphrodisiac, nutritional or medicinal supplement to Asian markets.

Caribou have been a major source of subsistence for Canadian Inuit.

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."[6]

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. Many Gwich'in people, who depend on the Porcupine caribou, still follow traditional caribou management practices that include a prohibition against selling caribou meat and limits on the number of caribou to be taken per hunting trip.[104]

The blood of the caribou was supposedly mixed with alcohol as drink by hunters and loggers in colonial Quebec to counter the cold. This drink is now enjoyed without the blood as a wine and whiskey drink known as Caribou.[105][106]

Reindeer husbandry

A reindeer sled, Arkhangelsk, Russia. Late nineteenth-century photochrom
Milking reindeer in the 19th century

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, and antlers and, to a lesser 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 were not bred in captivity, though they were tamed for milking as well as for use as draught animals or beasts of burden.[citation needed] Domesticated reindeer are shorter-legged and heavier than their wild counterparts.[citation needed]

The use of reindeer as semi-domesticated livestock in Alaska was introduced in the late 19th century by the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, with assistance from Sheldon Jackson, as a means of providing a livelihood for Native peoples there.[107] Reindeer were imported first from Siberia, and later also from Norway. A regular mail run in Wales, Alaska, used a sleigh drawn by reindeer.[108] In Alaska, reindeer herders use satellite telemetry to track their herds, using online maps and databases to chart the herd's progress.[citation needed]

Domesticated reindeer are mostly found in northern Fennoscandia and Russia, with a herd of approximately 150–170 reindeer living around the Cairngorms region in Scotland. The last remaining wild tundra reindeer in Europe are found in portions of southern Norway.[94] The International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry (ICR), a circumpolar organization, was established in 2005 by the Norwegian government. ICR represents over 20 indigenous reindeer peoples and about 100,000 reindeer herders in 9 different national states.[109] In Finland, there are about 6,000 reindeer herders, most of whom keep small herds of less than 50 reindeer to raise additional income. With 185,000 reindeer (2001), the industry produces 2,000 tons of reindeer meat and generates 35 million euros annually. 70% of the meat is sold to slaughterhouses. Reindeer herders are eligible for national and EU agricultural subsidies, which constituted 15% of their income. Reindeer herding is of central importance for the local economies of small communities in sparsely populated rural Lapland.[110]

In history

Both Aristotle and Theophrastus have short accounts – probably based on the same source – of an ox-sized deer species, named tarandos, living in the land of the Bodines in Scythia, which was able to change the colour of its fur to obtain camouflage. The latter is probably a misunderstanding of the seasonal change in reindeer fur colour. The descriptions have been interpreted as being of reindeer living in the southern Ural Mountains in c. 350 BC[9]

Tragelaphus or deer-goat

A deer-like animal described by Julius Caesar in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico (chapter 6.26) from the Hercynian Forest in the year 53 BC is most certainly to be interpreted as reindeer:[9][111]

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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.

According to Olaus Magnus's Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus – printed in Rome in 1555 – Gustav I of Sweden sent 10 reindeer to Albert I, Duke of Prussia, in the year 1533. It may be these animals that Conrad Gessner had seen or heard of.

During World War II, the Soviet Army used reindeer as pack animals to transport food, ammunition and post from Murmansk to the Karelian front and bring wounded soldiers, pilots and equipment back to the base. About 6,000 reindeer and more than 1,000 reindeer herders were part of the operation. Most herders were Nenets, who were mobilized from the Nenets Autonomous Okrug, but reindeer herders from Murmansk, Arkhangelsk and Komi also participated.[112][113]

Santa Claus' reindeer

Two Scottish reindeer relax after pulling Santa's sleigh at the switching on of Christmas lights

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In the Santa Claus tale, Santa Claus' 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.[114] Dunder was later changed to Donder and—in other works—Donner (in German, "thunder"), and Blixem was later changed to Bliksem, then Blitzen (blitz being 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 by Robert L. May in 1939 as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer".[115]

Heraldry and symbols

Several Norwegian municipalities have one or more reindeer depicted in their coats-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 logo for Umeå University features three reindeer.[116]

The Canadian 25-cent coin, or "quarter" features a depiction of a caribou on one face. The caribou is the official provincial animal of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, and appears on the coat of arms of Nunavut. A caribou statue was erected at the center of the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial, marking the spot in France where hundreds of soldiers from Newfoundland were killed and wounded in the First World War and there is a replica in Bowring Park, in St. John's, Newfoundland's capital city.[citation needed]

Two municipalities in Finland have reindeer motifs in their coats-of-arms: Kuusamo[117] has a running reindeer and Inari[118] a fish with reindeer antlers.

See also


  1. The Integrated Taxonomic Information System list Wilson and Geist on their experts panel.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Banfield rejected this classification in 1961. However, Geist and others considered it valid.
  3. The George River and Leaf River caribou herds are classified as woodland but are also migratory with tundra as their primary range


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  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 Henttonen, H. & Tikhonov, A. (2008). Rangifer tarandus. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved 29 April 2010.
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  6. 6.0 6.1 "In North America and Eurasia the species has long been an important resource—in many areas the most important resource—for peoples inhabiting the northern boreal forest and tundra regions. Known human dependence on caribou/wild reindeer has a long history, beginning in the Middle Pleistocene (Banfield 1961:170; Kurtén 1968:170) and continuing to the present.... The caribou/wild reindeer is thus an animal that has been a major resource for humans throughout a tremendous geographic area and across a time span of tens of thousands of years." Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
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  11. Aldrovandi, U. (1621) Quadrupedum omnium bisulcorum historia. Bononiæ. Cap. 30: De Tarando– Cap. 31: De Rangifero.
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  15. Spalding, Alex, Inuktitut – A Multi-Dialectal Outline Dictionary (with an Aivilingmiutaq base). Nunavut Arctic College, Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, 1998.
  16. Eskimoisches Wörterbuch, gesammelt von den Missionaren in Labrador, revidirt und herausgegeben von Friedrich Erdmann. Budissin [mod. Bautzen] 1864.
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  18. COSEWIC, p. 10
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  32. "In the winter, the fleshy pads on these toes grow longer and form a tough, hornlike rim. Caribou use these large, sharp-edged hooves to dig through the snow and uncover the lichens that sustain them in winter months. Biologists call this activity "cratering" because of the crater-like cavity the caribou’s hooves leave in the snow."All About Caribou – Project Caribou
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External links

Caribou-specific links (North America)