To the rest of the world, they are known as Reindeer; in North America, they are known as Caribou. Regardless of their name, these impressive mammals have a rich history…and are perhaps most famous for pulling Santa Claus’s sleigh as he delivers presents across the globe!
Originally, Reindeer have been found in Scandinavia, eastern Europe, Russia, Mongolia, Greenland, Canada, and northern USA (Alaska and continental US). In North America, the Caribou`s range extends from Alaska across northern Canada to Nunavut, down into the boreal forest and south through the Canadian Rockies and the Columbia & Selkirk Mountains. The name ‘Caribou’ derives from the Mi’kmaw word “qalipu”, literally meaning “the shoveller”. Reindeer are an important part of the histories and traditions in the regions where they are found, including having an integral role in First Nations and Inuit oral histories and traditions in Canada. For example, the Gwich’in Peoples`creation story details how Gwich’in People and the Caribou separated from a single entity.
Unique to Caribou, both males and females grow antlers. Male Caribou use their antlers to compete with other males during the mating season. After the mating season (Autumn), they shed their antlers and re-grow a bigger rack in the Spring – in other words, the larger the antlers the older the Caribou! Both male and female Caribou have large feet with crescent-shaped, cloven hooves, as well as white “socks” above their hooves. Caribou are incredibly fast runners, and can reach a speed of 60 – 80 km/hour (37 – 50 mph)! When they are only a day old, baby Caribou can already outrun an Olympic sprinter.
Caribou, and by extension Reindeer, are incredibly well-adapted to life in cooler climates. Their bodies, including their noses, are covered with hollow-hair fur, which provides insulation in the winter and helps them float when they swim. Their hooves adapt to the season. In the summer, when the land is soft and wet, their footpads become sponge-like to provide extra traction. In the winter, their footpads shrink and tighten, which exposes the rim of their hoof. Their hoof is then able to cut into the ice and crushed snow to keep them from slipping. It also helps them dig up plants from underneath the snow.