Everyone knows reindeer are the archetypal Christmas animal, but does anyone really know anything about them? Apart from the fact that they have antlers and pull sleighs, that is. Well, here are some facts about this very festive animal.
1. They don’t have red noses . Bit of an obvious one to start off with. But you might not know that the fictional Rudolph almost didn’t have a red nose either! The story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created by an American called Robert Lewis May in 1939. At the time, bright red noses were considered to be a sign of alcoholism, so the story was initially rejected. It was only when May convinced an illustrator friend to draw lots of “cute reindeer” (based on zoo deer as models) that the story was eventually accepted! Wouldn’t our lives have been that much sadder without Rudolph the Gin-Sodden Reindeer?
2. Reindeer go by many names . No – not Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. In North America, they’re called caribou. The word “caribou” comes from a Native American word “qalipu”, which means “snow shoveler”. Reindeer comes from the Old Norse word “hreinin” which means “horned animal”, and you can see what they were trying to do there… And most eastern European languages get their name for the horned beasts from “pocaw”, which comes from the Iranian for “cattle”.
3. Female reindeer can have antlers , and they’re the only type of deer where this is the case. Usually, it’s the only males that have them. The female deer keep their antlers right up until they give birth to their babies in the spring. It’s believed this is so they can compete for food during the winter months. They’re eating for two, you know!
4. They have a moss named after them . It’s called reindeer moss (or reindeer lichen) and it was given that name because they eat it. They eat loads of it. Indeed, reindeer are the only mammals who possess the enzyme lichenase which breaks lichen down to glucose.
5. Polar bears eat them . Poor old reindeer have quite a few enemies. Golden eagles and wolverines prey on their calves (their babies; not their lower leg muscles). Brown bears and polar bears feed on reindeer of all ages. A whole reindeer was even found once in the stomach of a Greenland shark! And even in death, there’s no escape – foxes, ravens, hawks, flies and mosquitos all have a lovely time feasting on reindeer. Norwegians love a bit of reindeer on their pizza!
6. Reindeer are strictly northerners , so it’s unlikely they’d ever be friends with a penguin, despite what the little cartoons on Christmas cards want us to believe. Reindeer can be found in Alaska, northern Canada, parts of Greenland and Iceland, and northern Scandinavia and Russia. However, it hasn’t always been this way; they used to live further south. During the Pleistocene era (which is a long time ago, trust me), reindeer used to live as far south as Nevada, Tennessee and Spain!
7) Reindeer have lots of great ways of dealing with the cold , which is lucky seeing as that’s where they spend most of their time. Their noses warm the air they breathe before it reaches their lungs. Their fur traps air, which keeps them warm and has the added bonus of helping them to float in water! Their hooves adapt to the changing seasons remarkably well. In summer, when the ground is moist, their pads tighten giving them extra grip on the slipperiness!