Friday, June 4, 2010


Caribou are also known as Reindeer, though that's mostly a European thing. In Canada and Alaska, wild creatures are Caribou, while the domesticated animals are sometimes called Reindeer. So because this is Alaska Week, and because I'll mostly be discussing the wild specimens, we're going to go with Caribou.

There are seven subspecies of Rangifer tarandus, only one of which, the Barren Ground Caribou, is found in Alaska. Two others, the Peary and Woodland, have ranges in Canada, while the other four are found in Europe and Greenland. There are over a million individual Caribou in Alaska, divided into 32 herds. These herds migrate, sometimes travelling up to 3,700 miles in a year. These migrations have been tracked and studied by scientists for years due to their massive range and overall distance.

Caribou are unique as a deer species in that both the males and females have antlers, which they shed yearly. Antlers in males are substantially larger than those in females, whose antlers are smaller and more irregular. Male caribou can also reach weights of over 400lbs, with figures of up to 700lbs recorded. Females top out at around 250. Caribou have some pretty neat hooves to help them with both their food supply and their migrations. They have very wide set feet with spongy footpads to help them move over snowy and wet surfaces. In winter the pads shrink, which exposes the hoof edge to form a kind of ice pick / shovel. These hooves give them better traction by allowing them to dig into icy terrain. They also help to uncover lichens, which is one of their most popular food sources.
Lounging (taken at Milwaukee County Zoo)

Caribou were domesticated several thousand years ago (the exact date seems up in the air, but between 5,000-2,000 years ago seems the most likely) Domesticated Caribou (more often referred to as Reindeer) are vitally important to many Arctic societies. In Scandinavia and and Siberia, the entirely livelihood of a culture can depend upon the herd. Notable examples are the Sami's, who used and still use the reindeer for multiple purposes including transportation (not only do they pull sleighs, you can ride them!), food, and clothing. Domesticated Caribou are not as common in North America, but the usefulness of the wild populations has had an impact on those cultures as well.

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