You know the iconic caribou on our quarter coins? Did you know they are the same species as reindeer? They’re otherwise known as Rangifer tarandus.
While caribou are native to North America, reindeer are found in northern Europe and Asia, with some being found in parts of Alaska. Caribou are wild animals with long migration patterns and reindeer are semi-domesticated – but that’s where the differences end.
Both reindeer and caribou are cold weather specialists. They are covered in hair – including their noses and feet! Their thick coats are made of two layers – a soft, wooly layer close to their skin, and an outer layer composed of thick, hollow hairs. This helps trap heat, keeping the animals warm in the coldest conditions. It also, surprisingly, makes them extremely good swimmers. The air trapped in their top layer of hair makes them buoyant in the water which is important for swimming across rivers during migration.
Reindeer have unique (and hairy!) hooves that are cloven and splay out to carry them across snow and tundra like snowshoes. For extra traction, they have two large dewclaws on each foot. Their sharp hooves also allow them to dig down through the snow to find food.
They have the largest antlers in the deer family compared to body size. Reindeer are also the only deer species where both females and males sport antlers. These animals are very social and form massive herds – the largest herd ever recorded was 500,000 individuals!
The Edmonton Valley Zoo is home to a herd of six reindeer.
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Large males can stand more than 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) tall at the shoulder and exceed 250 kg (550 pounds) in weight; females are slightly smaller. Caribou are taller and lankier than reindeer, likely because they evolved to make long migrations.
Reindeer enjoy the open tundra or old-growth forests.
They are herbivores and in the wild, reindeer feast mostly on lichen, but will also enjoy vegetation such as moss, birch, willow leaves, grasses, or flowering tundra plants. At the zoo, the reindeer enjoy alfalfa hay and CAZA browser pellets.
Reindeer have been domesticated for the past 2000 years so they are fairly well-mannered and are very social. Males get competitive and will use their antlers to challenge one another for females.
Females give birth to one offspring in the spring.
Up to 15 years in the wild.
Reindeer and caribou are considered vulnerable to extinction. Their main threats are habitat loss and fragmentation due to human activity, as well as climate change, which makes them more susceptible to diseases and parasites.