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Reindeer or caribou?

Even though no one has actually seen a reindeer fly, this special member of the deer family has a lot to live up to! Reindeer and caribou are classified as the same genus and species—Rangifer tarandus—but caribou are slightly larger and reindeer are domesticated. Reindeer is the European and Asian name for the animal that is used by humans to pull sleds or carry packs, and caribou is the name used in the northern parts of North America. Those of us in the United States use reindeer when referring to the domesticated animal.

From the top

Antlers are the most memorable characteristic of reindeer. In males, antlers can measure 20 to 51 inches (52 to 130 centimeters) long, and females’ antlers can reach 9 to 20 inches (23 to 50 centimeters). Unlike horns, antlers fall off and grow back larger every year. While the new antlers grow, the reindeer is said to be in velvet, because skin, blood vessels, and soft fur cover the developing antlers.

Males begin to grow antlers in February and females in May. They both finish growing their antlers at the same time and shed or rub off the velvet during September. However, they shed their antlers at different times of the year. A male drops his during November, leaving him without antlers in December, while female reindeer keep their antlers through the winter until their calves are born in May. This fact has led many to believe that, based on the presence of antlers, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer must have been a female to have those antlers on Christmas Eve!

But what are the antlers for? They are handy weapons against predators, and males use their impressive antlers (which can weigh up to 33 pounds, or 15 kilograms!) to impress the females.

Both male and female reindeer grow long antlers, the only deer species to do so.
Some reindeer travel 9 to 40 miles (15 to 65 kilometers) daily in the same area; others migrate 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) twice a year in large herds.
In comparison to body size, reindeer have the largest and heaviest antlers of all living deer species.
Adult reindeer can swim 4 to 6 miles per hour (6 to 10 kilometers per hour) and can run up to 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour).
When reindeer walk, their feet make a loud clicking noise due to a tendon slipping over the foot bone.

The San Diego Zoo has a small herd of reindeer in our Northern Frontier.

Reindeer are thought to have first been domesticated by humans at least 3,000 years ago (and perhaps as long as 7,000 years ago) in northern Eurasia (Lapland) and still remain the only deer species to be widely domesticated. They are used as beasts of burden and farmed for milk, meat, and their hides. Currently, there has been concern about how herds will be affected by companies drilling for oil and gas lines, as these activities often block the reindeer’s travel routes.