Wild Profile: Meet the reindeer (er, caribou)

A caribou in winter By David Boutin/Shutterstock

Real caribou—a.k.a. reindeer—can’t fly like Santa’s famous eight, but they’re pretty good at everything else. They have broad feet for travelling across and digging under the snow; a layer of insulating, air-filled guard hairs that help to make them buoyant in the water; and a specialized gut to process lichen. Caribou are the only large mammals able to survive on lichens; in winter, it makes up about two thirds of their diets.

Along with their amazing ability to literally stomach a fungus-alga hybrid (yum!), caribou are unusual among ungulates in that both males and females can grow antlers. (Females can grow antlers, but not all do.) Female bison, mountain goats, and gazelle also sport headgear—but these are permanent horns. Like male moose, bulls lose their antlers by December, but cows often keep theirs intact until the spring. Pregnant females use this weaponry to exert dominance at feeding time—they’re eating for two, so fair enough.

Strange trivia alert: research shows that caribou living in Arctic regions have eyes that change colour. In the dead of winter—24-hour darkness—a reindeer’s retinas (specifically, a layer behind the retina) will go from gold to blue, making the eye more sensitive to the low light conditions.

Sadly, Canada’s boreal caribou are in serious trouble. The various sub-species are listed as either endangered, under threat, or of special concern. What’s left of our population is distributed from Labrador to B.C. in small, wandering pockets, mostly north of logging areas or highways.

Read about government efforts to protect our caribou.

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