Scientific Classification Kingdom: AnimaliaPhylum: ChordataClass: MammaliaOrder: ArtiodactylaFamily: CervidaeSubfamily: CapreolinaeGenus: RangiferSpecies: Rangifer tarandus
Did you know? Reindeer are very famous because of all the Christmas stories pulling the sleigh. Caribou on the other hand are not known for much but being an ungulate (hoofed animal) in the far north. However, both reindeer and caribou are the same species but distinct varieties. Even though they are physiologically similar, their histories with us are completely different.
Word History Even though Saint Nick had used reins on the reindeer to pull the sleds through both Lapland and northern portion of Siberia, the word reindeer does not have anything to do with reins. The second half does indeed include the actual word, but rein is borrowed from another language (Scandinavian).
The old Icelandic language from which much of the old Norse literature is written is not of the same variety of the old Norse spoken by the English settlers. So, we can cite that the old Icelandic word hreinn, which means “reindeer”, as the source of the first part of the English word. The word reindeer was also the first recorded in Middle English in a work composed before 1400!
What makes them so different? Reindeer can be found in northern Asia and Europe Those reindeer that are from Siberia are known to have shorter legs and more of a varied fur (Rangifertarandustarandus) A similar species living in Alaska is Rangifertarandusgranti Reindeer Caribou
Characteristics Each hoof is soft and tender for tundra walking during the summer, whereas in the winter the hooves are hard and strong, enabling them to cut into the snow Their nose is mid-size, ranging between the delicate proboscis of a mule deer to a moose nose One of the most recognized features are the antlers, which are found on both sexes (the only species of deer that shows this characteristic) Fur color varies with increasing latitude: A mouse grey in milder temperatures to a deep brown or white closer to the Arctic
Home range • Caribou can be found within the Arctic tundra and also adjacent to the boreal forests of Greenland, Scandinavia, Russia, Alaska and Canada • Reindeer have been domesticated within Europe • Two different types of varieties (ecotypes): • Tundra reindeer – migrate between both the tundra and forest in large herds that number up to half a million in an annual cycle that covers as much as 5,000 km • Forest (woodland) reindeer – also migrate seasonally, but the populations are much lower
The home range for both the caribou and reindeer are different, but the caribou are adapted to Alaskan habitats
Foraging Behavior Their diet ranges throughout the seasons because of what is available and growing (some plants may not grow through the permafrost, etc) Diet includes: grasses, herbs, crowberries, and any new leaves on trees such as birch or willow shrubs However, the most important source of nourishment in the winter is whilst lichen Though it is very rare for any reindeer to be seen eating from berry bushes such as black crowberry, it is a good indicator of overgrazing
When do they mate? Mating usually occurs during the late fall months (September to early November). In order for the males to find a mate, they must compete amongst themselves They lock antlers to show dominance over one another The most dominant mate with at least 15-20 females, this mating system is known as harem defense polygyny
During this period males lose a lot of weight, due to reduced foraging time, expending most energy into mating Calves are born the following May or June Within 45 days after birth, the calves are able to graze and forage like the rest of the herd However, they will still continue suckling until the following fall before becoming independent from their mothers
“In 1881, when I first visited the district of Norton and Kotzebue Sounds and the lower Yukon, deer [caribou] were plentiful. This past winter (1889) not a single animal had been seen within a radius of 200 miles.” -An explorer Tinkering with Eden: A Natural History of Exotic Species in America by Kim Todd page 149
Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian minister and the general agent of education in Alaska, noticed that many aboriginal individuals were struggling to survive because there was not enough food and clothing. He came up with a plan to introduce reindeer into the Alaskan and Canadian wilderness from Siberia in an attempt to rejuvenate caribou numbers Jackson did not want the government to repeat the Plains Indian/American Bison crisis in the Native Alaskan/Caribou system and tried to take a pro-active approach to the problem. The Sheldon Jackson Story
The New York Times heard of the situation and reported: “[It] has been seriously represented that unless something is done for a new source of supply the natives may have to be supported by the United States government like the Indians of the plains when their buffalo was exterminated.” -New York Times page 155 Tinkering with Eden
Funds were slowly accumulated to purchase the reindeer from Siberia. But the money was mostly raised by the Private Sector since the government did not initially fund the collecting trips or the purchase animals In 1881, Jackson started a newspaper campaign to raise funds By the mid-summer, Jackson alone raised $2,150 from private donations and set sail to Siberia aboard The Bear with Cpt. Mike Healy. This proved to be a valuable relationship as Healy was part of a fleet called the revenue cutters, a precursor to the Coast Guard
Cultural Differences • In Siberia, cultural differences were quite apparent. • If you wanted an animal for the meat alone, everyone was shooed away, and one of the animals were led away from the group while the owner faced east to begin praying. A signal was then given, and the animal was stabbed in the heart with a knife. Once the animal was dead, they gathered hair and blood and threw it to the east as well, still praying • Siberians believed selling a live deer was bad luck • Jackson however was determined, and contrary to the prediction of naysayers, left Siberia with sixteen reindeer
Initially, the reindeer were deposited on Amaknak and Unalaska islands to overwinter, and the small herd did quite well Jackson campaigned even harder for a larger government fund upon returning to Washington, telling Alaskan tales of beauty and hardship On July 4, 1892, the second trip for The Bear was completed when it arrived in Port Clarence near the Seward Peninsula, carrying 53 reindeer to be released into their new surroundings
Local Response W. T. Lopp, a school teacher at the time, but later the superintendent of the Teller Reindeer Station, had this to say when he first glimpsed at the transported herds with his wife: “It seemed as if we had suddenly stepped into the fairly land of Santa Claus, although, when seen in the distance, the deer resembled a herd of cattle quietly grazing on a gentle hill slope in the States.” Tinkering with Eden (159)
As soon as the animals had stepped into Alaska, many natives were gathering ideas of their potential uses Many had thought about using the reindeer for carrying mail between Eaton and Nome, providing transportation from rivers to mines within the interior, as well as rescuing whalers Government officials conducted experiments to see what would result if the caribou and reindeer interbred. The interbred animals bulked up considerably, pleasing their owners but becoming too scientifically valuable for the island natives to eat
A crucial problem of the introduction was that many Eskimos did not want to be cowboys, or herd reindeer Eskimos placed a priority on village and family life, and did not want to wander nomadically into the Alaskan interior following a wandering herd Though, even when an eskimo did want to raise reindeer and accumulate a sizable number, the herd was never really his due to government restrictions
The ownership struggle continued to see who would own the reindeer recently brought over Even with the laws that had been put into place, many illegal sales were occurring with female reindeer being sold to whites During the 1932 general roundup on the Seward Peninsula, the natives owned only 88,673 of the deer, one white-run corporation owned 34,235, Lapps owned 615, and 2,250 were owned by others Many of the reindeer began to interbreed with the caribou in the wild, taking on varying names (ie reinibou, bouideer, reinicar, carideer)
Natives had a hard time making money from the reindeer that they did own, due to white herders charging a one dollar per year herding fee, and only buying the reindeer for three dollars a head • In 1940, the government bought all reindeer owned by non-natives to redistribute them, but the reindeer industry was already collapsing • However, just ten years before the domesticated reindeer population had hit 650,000 • Wild caribou were better suited for survival due to the reindeer’s domesticated past. Reindeer were not as migratory as caribou, and relied on humans as protection from predators • Lack of desire or incentive to raise reindeer herds caused a bust in the population due to starvation (<25,000 in 1950)