#Science Saturday: Random Reindeer Facts
These days, when the holiday’s roll around, reindeer are just as common as candy canes and snowmen when it comes to decorations. But, why reindeer? How did they become the common conveyance for Santa’s sled?
The first mention of reindeer pulling Santa’s sled through the night sky was in the early 1800s in a familiar story, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” written by Clement C. Moore.
The best known reindeer, Rudolph, wasn’t introduced until 1939, when Robert L. May wrote a children’s book for Montgomery Ward, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
As magical and amazing as Santa’s reindeer are, the real animal the character is derived from, is pretty amazing, in its own right.
Reindeer and the North American caribou are actually the same beast. A member of the deer family, the reindeer’s scientific name is “rangifer tarandus.” There are more than a dozen sub-species that vary in size and color, depending on the region in which they live.
According to mentalfloss.com, Santa’s reindeer are most likely “R.t. platyrhynchus” subspecies from the Svalbard islands off of Norway, which are about a foot shorter and weigh about half as much as a traditional reindeer. In Moore’s poem they’re described as, “eight tiny reindeer.”
12 Fascinating facts about Reindeer from the National Wildlife Federation:
- North America reindeer are also called caribou.
- Both male and female reindeer can have antlers.
- Their noses are specially designed to warm the air before it gets to their lungs. The temperature drops to 80 degrees below zero in some places reindeer live.
- Reindeer hooves expand in summer when the ground is soft and shrink in winter when the ground is hard.
- Some subspecies have knees that make a clicking noise when they walk so the animals can stay together in a blizzard.
- Some North American caribou migrate over 3,000 miles in a year – more than any other land mammal.
- Though thought of as a tundra species, a form of caribou lived in southern Idaho until the 19th century (there are ongoing efforts to re-establish them in the state).
- Northernmost species are much lighter in color than species at the southern end their range.
- Reindeer have been herded for centuries by several Arctic and Subarctic peoples.
- The name “reindeer” is of Norse origin (from the old Norse word “hreinn” for deer) and has nothing to do the reins of a sled. The name “caribou” comes to us through the French, from the Mi’kmag “qalipu,” meaning “snow shoveler.”
- Golden eagles are the leading predator of caribou calves in the late spring and fall.
- Once the entire body of a reindeer was found inside a Greenland shark (most likely a case of near-shore scavenging, as opposed to a migrating land shark).
Reindeer are extremely adaptable. During winter darkness in the arctic region, their eyes become 1,000 times more sensitive to light. Researchers at University College London have also recently discovered reindeer are the only mammal that can see ultra-violet light. And, although reindeer can’t actually fly, they can run up to 50 mph.
Now, you can send your kids back to school after the holiday break knowing they’ve learned something new.