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From Backyards to Backwoods: Thinking of reindeer, caribou, red noses

For some reason, my mind has been on reindeer this week. Maybe it stems from my childhood. When I stopped to think about it, I realized how little I really knew about this deer species. Let's see - there's Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen, but I don't think I ever understood why Rudolph's nose was red. That motivated me to spend some time reading this week.

Are reindeer and caribou just two different names for the same animal? I found that, basically they are the same. They both live in the far north regions, both eat lichens, moss, and grass, and with both animals, antlers grow on males and females. There are differences, however. Reindeer are smaller and were domesticated in northern Europe and Asia about two thousand years ago.

They were important as a source of food, clothing, and shelter. In a letter written in the ninth century from King Ottar of Norway to Alfred the Great, the king tells of his fine herd of over six hundred reindeer.

Reindeer were brought to the Seward Peninsula (Alaska) from Russia in 1893 as a source of food and a boost to the economy. People raised them and herded them similar to the cattle ranchers on the open range of our western states. The yearly presence of caribou on the reindeer range during migration has caused a problem. Some of the reindeer are joining the caribou herds and migrating with them. Herders have lost so many animals that they have turned to using online mapping and satellite tracking to avoid the migrating caribou in an effort to keep their reindeer herds.

Caribou use the same migration routes every year. Wolves and hunters are enemies that the caribou encounter annually, but there is a new enemy emerging.

The National Wildlife Federation just published an article on the effects of global warming. Some of the rivers the caribou cross while migrating are usually frozen, but warmer temperatures have left them open, causing many calves to be swept away in the strong currents.

In the far north, for much of the year, a layer of snow covers the moss and lichens. Caribou, with their large hooves, have little trouble digging to get at food, but due to warmer temperatures some of the winter precipitation has come down in the form of rain and that has resulted in a layer of ice developing over the snow and underlying food sources.

If you want to read more about this go to

Now after all that, let me ask again. Are reindeer and caribou the same species? Some refer to caribou as wild reindeer. Others refer to reindeer as semi-domesticated caribou. It's your choice.

Over the holidays, help a child research a favorite wildlife species and see what interesting facts you can learn together. Also, let us know about your interest in a winter photo contest.

I still don't know why Rudolph's nose is red.