Reindeer: General Information

The reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), which means “to walk in single file” which is how reindeer prefer to travel, is also known in North America as the caribou, from the native American word Mi’kmaq which means shoveller. Caribou were once considered a separate species.

The history of reindeer In Europe is associated with primitive man. The people of the upper Palaeolithic age depended upon reindeer for food, clothing and tools, such as those that feature on the picture on the right. Although these people ate shell fish grubs and vegetation, reindeer meat was the mainstay of their diet. As you will read in the Reindeer in Art section reindeer featured in rock drawings and cave paintings such as those found in Atamira in Spain and cave art featuring reindeer on the walls of Font-de-Gaume near Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil in the Dordogne départment of south-west France, a cave from the Magdalénien period, about 14,000 BC.

The population of Reindeer in Europe was so numorous that this period in time has been called the Reindeer Age.


In the main reindeer can be found in Northern Asia, Europe, Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland.

Reindeer, including both populations of resident and migratory animals, are spread right across the northern hemisphere in the region of the tundra, mountains and woodland of the Arctic and Subarctic. In the tundra the growth of tees is impeded by the low temperatures and the short growing season. This along with a permanently frozen subsoil makes vegetation sparse. In the main vegetation in the tundra consists of dwarf shrubs,sedges and grasses, mosses, and lichens, the last three of which provide grazing for reindeer.Originally reindeer inhabited a wider range than they do today including Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Russia, Mongolia, and northern China. At one time reindeer were found in Canada, Alaska and the northern conterminous USA from Washington to Maine. Reindeer were still present In the 19th century in southern Idaho and were also found as far south as Nevada and Tennessee in North America and Spain in Europe during the late Pleistocene era. Reindeer also occurred naturally on Sakhalin, Greenland, and probably even in historical times in Ireland and also the main land UK during the last ice age. Wild reindeer have disappeared from many areas within this large historical range, especially from the southern parts, where they have vanished almost everywhere. However in the main reindeer are still numerous, with an estimated population of over seven million animals, though some of the subspecies are rare. Today large populations of wild reindeer are still found in Norway, Finland, Siberia, Greenland, Alaska, and Canada. *1)

Approximately 1 million reindeer live in Alaska, and a comparable number live in northern Canada. In Eurasia there are an estimated 5 million reindeer most are semi-domesticated. In additon to the areas shown above in red there are a small population of about 150 Reindeer in the cairngorms in Scotland and, although few in number, there are two distinct herds of reindeer on the Island of South Georgia, introduced there at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Kerguelen Islands and East Iceland have small populations of reindeer introduced to the former location by the Norwegians.


There were originally nine subspecies of reindeer. A subspecies is a variety, usually a geographically isolated interbreeding organism, who evolve to adapt to their environment.

The East Greenland and Queen Charlotte island reindeer are now extinct. The seven remaining subspecies are:

Barren-ground Caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus)

With an estimated population of between 1.5 and 2 million animals this subspecies is found mainly in the Canadian territories Nunavut and the Northwest Territories and western Greenland. This subspecies is most well known for their massive migration each year from their winter home in the forest to calving grounds in the tundra. In one season they may travel the distance of about 120 kms/746 miles.This subspecies of reindeer has a brown summer coat which in winter becomes much lighter.

Peary Caribou (Rangifer tarandus pearyi)

Found in the high Arctic islands of Canada’s Nunavut and Northwest territories the Peary Caribou are the smallest of the North American Caribou. Included in the Canadian Government’s endangered species list their numbers have dwindled since the 1965 estimate of 25,845*During the winter the fur of the Peary Caribou is thick and white and becomes shorter and darker, nearly slate-grey during the summer.

Svalbard Reindeer (R. tarandus platyrhynchus)

Numbering about 10,000 the Svalbard Reindeer is the smallest subspecies of reindeer, they live on the high arctic Archipelago group of islands of the same name which during the last Ice age were connected to the mainland. After the end of the last Ice age the islands and the organisms that lived there including reindeer become isolated.

The males are significantly larger than the females, though the subspecies is small in comparison to other subspecies. This is a phenomenon called insular dwarfism and may occur due to environmental stress when an animal’s gene pool is limited to a very small environment as is the case with these Island dwelling animals. Females are approximately 150 cm (59 in) in length and a weigh around 53 kg (120 lb) in the spring and 70 kg (150 lb) in the autumn. Males are approximately 160 cm (63 in) in length and weigh around 65 kg (140 lb) in the spring and 90 kg (200 lb) in the autumn. The reindeer from Svalbard are also relatively short-legged and may have a shoulder height of as little as 80 cm (31 in),*2) Their coat is brown with a lighter shade on the stomach, these colourings become lighter during the winter months turning to a pale grey or yellowish white. The Hunting of Svalbard Reindeer, responsible for a depletion in their population, was banned in 1925 by the Norwegian government.

Finnish Forest Reindeer (R.tarandus fennicus)

The Finnish Forest Reindeer is found in the wild in only two areas of the Fennoscandia peninsula of Northern Europe, in Finnish/Russian Karelia, and a small population in central south Finland. This subspecies have the largest feet and longest legs to adapt them to conditions of deep snow. This subspecies of reindeer is one of the largest, being approximately 180 to 220 cms in length and weighing about 100kg for females, the larger male weights about 150–250 kg.

Woodland Caribou (R. tarandus caribou) (R. tarandus caribou)

The woodland caribou, inhabits the boreal forests of Canada and far northern contiguous United States, ranging from Newfoundland and Labrador west and south to Washington. A medium sized reindeer, the bulls on average weigh about 180kg while the cows weigh around 115kg. Woodland Caribou are migratory.

During the summer their coats which are long and thick are dark brown fading to a light grey colour during the winter. The hair round their neck is a creamy white. Unfortunately the woodland Caribou is endangered throughout central Canada. Once their range included most of the Northern hemisphere. Human activities such as logging and mining, along with other intrusions of human development, have had a detrimental impact on their environment.

Eurasian tundra (or mountain) reindeer (R. t. tarandus) European Reindeer

Originating in Eastern Siberia and Alaska this subspecies includes both domestic and wild reindeer. Eurasian tundra reindeer are found west of the Bering Straits in the tundra and taiga regions of Scandinavia. Being particularly gregarious has made this reindeer easy to domesticate, the domesticated reindeer far outnumber the wild.

The Alaskan Caribou (Rt granti) Grant’s Caribou

The Alaskan Caribou as the name suggests lives in Alaska. This subspecies of reindeer live in various habitats, some may live as small groups in forests while other congregate in large herds, the most well known of which is the Western Arctic heard with an estimated 500,000 reindeer who annually migrate vast distances to the tundra. These animals are the most traveled of land animals and can travel as far as 5,000 km each year

According to their type reindeer considerably vary in size and colour. However on average reindeer are about 4 feet tall(120cms) at the shoulder and about six feet (180cms) in length and an adult male may weigh about 92–210 kg (200–460 lb). In some species of reindeer the females are slightly smaller as are also domesticated reindeer and may weigh 79–120 kg (170–260 lb. The coats of reindeer vary in colour according to the season.

Reindeer have thick fur which traps air, a vital asset for insulating the animal from the bitter cold in the snow and ice as they desperately look for food in temperatures as low as minus 30°C. Their fur has special qualities that help to insulate the animal against the extremity of cold weather, maintaining their body temperature in even in the severest cold. The hair is exceptionally dense and consists of an outer coat of guard hairs. These are long hollow hairs packed together at a density of an amazing 5,000 hairs per square inch. In addition to insulation the hallow guard hairs provide buoyancy when the reindeer swims. Reindeer also have a fine “wooly” undercoat with a density of 13,00 hairs per square inch which forms an efficient air trap. So efficient is their thick coat that when reindeer sit on the snow the snow does not melt as their guard hairs prevent body heat from escaping and melting the snow, this stops the reindeer from getting wet and cold. Reindeer faces are protected by the growth of facial hair which protects the muzzle when they graze in the snow. Fur growth varies between the different subspecies of reindeer, for example the fur of Svalbard reindeer is longer and denser than that of Norwegian reindeer and it covers the ears, eyelids, snout, lips and feet much more extensively.*3)

Reindeer have special bones in their nose which increases the surface area of the nostrils so that the cold air they inhale is warmed by their body before it gets to their lungs.

When Reindeer walk they make a clicking noise, which is made by the tendons in their legs, this helps them to locate each other either during the night or when visibility is reduced during the severe winter blizzards. Reindeer have only average eyesight and locate food using their keen sense of smell. An unusual feature of reindeer is that they have front teeth only on their bottom jaw; there are molars on both the top and bottom.

Unlike other species of deer where the female may be called a doe or a hind, the male a stag or a buck while the babies are called fawns, male Reindeer are called bulls, the female are cows and the babies are calves.

Both gender have antlers, which begin to grow within weeks of being born, although they grow larger in the males, their growth depends on sex hormones and antlers are larger and more elaborate in older males. However there are some exceptions and in a few populations the females do not have antlers. The largest antlers are produced by caribou and Norwegian reindeer. Antlers, thought to be the fastest growing living tissue, range in size amongst the different subspecies from very small in the northernmost subspecies to the large antlers in some subspecies of bull reindeer which are, after the moose, the second largest antlers of any deer in existence today and may range in growth to as much as 100 cm (39 in) in width and 135 cm (53 in) in beam length. Relative to body size though they have the largest antlers of any deer. Antlers are not like horns which are made of keratin, the same as our finger nails, and other proteins surrounding a core of living bone. Horns are never shed and continue growing throughout the animal’s life. In contrast antlers are large branching appendages, no two of which are the same, which are initially composed of cartilage that is mineralized to become bone, antlers are shed and regrown every year. Also Antlers grow from the tip unlike horns which grow from the base.

Antlers may reach an incredible size

Antlers may reach incredible sizes and each set is unique to the individual as fingerprints are to human beings.The size of a reindeer’s antlers increases each year.

The main purpose of antlers is to assert social dominance. Once antlers are shed even the largest reindeer’s social position drops in the pecking order below even that of young reindeer with rudimentary antlers. Antlers also serve as a tool for shovelling snow which covers moss. This is the purpose of the branch, present in both males and females, close to the base of their antlers that projects forwards which functions rather like a shovel.
Bulls and cows drop their antlers annually but at different times of the year, the bulls by January and cows by Spring retaining them until after calving, this gives them an advantage over bull reindeer for food resources which are limited.

The antlers of reindeer may grow to enormous sizes determined by a combination of a number of factors, genetic predisposition, age and nutrition. The bulls have larger antlers than the cows. The antlers grow to their largest extent at about 5 or 6 years of age. The largest antlers are divided into three parts: the long main beam curves gently backwards, there are two branches pointing forwards, the smaller brow tine and the larger shovel.

Reindeer bulls begin growing their antlers in January and February.

Antlers in some varieties of reindeer, the Scandinavian variety for instance fall off during December for older males, while the antlers of young males are shed during the early spring and for females this does not occur until the summertime.

Towards the end of August the bone begins to harden as the blood stops flowing through the antlers. At this time reindeer will begin to vigorously rub off the velvet, this can look very bloody for a couple of days, it can take rutting bulls about twenty four hours to remove it all.

The females retain their antlers longer until March or April, after which time their antlers immediately begin to grow again. This gives them an advantage over the winter period as they than become dominant and better equipped to ensure that they and their calves get the best of the food during this time when food is not so readily available. The calves loose their antlers about the same time as the females.

Antlers are an extension of the skull from permanent bones called pedicles. When antlers begin to grow they are soft and flexible, nourished by a vascular covering called velvet, a mass of blood and marrow which in bull reindeer is shed in August. With veins near to the surface the antlers feel warm to the touch. Nerves grow at the same rate as the antlers. Reindeer are extremely sensitive if touched while they are in velvet. Bull antler hardens to bone in June while for cows this transformation occurs in July. Velvet can grow at up to an amazing 2cm each day, representing the fastest rate of organ growth in the animal kingdom. Antlers are the only mammalian appendage capable of regenerate each year with all tissues blood vessels growing at the same rate. This phenomenon has resulted in scientific interest concerning the processes involved in the growth of antlers and its possible medical potential, it is hoped that the study of antler growth may lead to an understanding of how cancer occurs and also in the development of medical applications for tissue repair and the healing of wounds. However the mechanisms of this process are not as yet fully understood.

Reindeer are seasonal breeding animals. Bulls begin to breed from as early as one and a half years of age. The males use their antlers in a ritualized combative way during the rutting or breeding season to gain control of a harem of from 5 to 15 females. Two males will lock antlers, which have now grown to their largest extent for the breeding season, and try to push each other, although this can progress to real fighting there are few instances of fatalities. Reindeer bulls do not eat much during the rut and as a consequence become thin and may lose up to 1/3 of their body weight and as a consequence are exhausted. It is not surprising that studies have shown that male reindeer suffer greater mortality than females

The rut lasts three or four weeks and depending on location may begin in late September to early November. Shortly after the rut the antlers are shed.

In regions were deer become calcium deficient as a result of poor soils the antlers may be chewed in order to derive necessary nutrition.

Females leave the herd as the time to give birth draws near to select a secluded spot where she can give birth, or calve, returning to the same location each year. The calf is born between late May and early June. Within only minutes of being born the baby is able to stand and weighs between about 11-20 pounds 4 to 9 kilograms and will suckle for five to six months. A day-old calf can outrun a grown man.

Reindeer have usually only one off-spring. Gestation is about 240 days.

Bulls become solitary and split apart from the group for summer forage returning for the rut, while the remaining herd consists mostly of females, usually a matriarchy.

Reindeer are ruminants, other examples are sheep, cattle, goats and giraffe. Ruminants are usually horned mammals, who are even toed, chew the cud and have four stomachs or more accurately a stomach that is divided into four compartments. Reindeer are herbivores, their diet consists of grass, moss and lichen; tough fibrous plants that contain cellulose which needs a lot of digesting. The process of rumination involves the
re-chewing of the food that has previously fermented in the fore-pouches of their stomach. They spend most of their day grazing. Reindeer are veracious eaters and may consume as much as twelve pounds of vegetation each day. If the vegetation is covered by snow they will scrape the snow away with their hooves. However in times of severe shortage during the long dark and bitterly cold winter reindeer may become carnivorous to a small degree. Their depleted diet results in cravings, particularly for salt. At such times of deprivation reindeer may eat meat or fish discarded by man or the remains of dead animals including those of other reindeer. These starving animals have even been known to hunt and kill lemmings and may eat birds and or their eggs. Also common is the gnawing of bones and the ingesting of bird droppings and the urine of other animals, a particular favourite is human urine and to a lesser extent that of dogs. To do so Reindeer eat the snow which has been wetted by urine. This craving has been exploited by hunters who use urine as bait and by herders as a means of controlling the herd.

An even more peculiar part of the reindeer diet are Magic mushrooms which are found in pine and birch woods of western North America, Northern Europe, and Asia. Towards the end of the summer mushrooms high in protein, phosphorus, potassium and vitamin content become available providing reindeer with a rich food source before the approach of the arduous winter. It is not known if reindeer are effected by the hallucinogenic properties of these mushrooms, they however search for them with frantic enthusiasm erratically altering their movements to do so using their highly developed sense of smell to locate them frantically scrapping away any early fall snow with their hooves.

Recently, at least according to several reports in the media, just before Christmas eve 2010, scientists have claimed that reindeer do in fact get high on magic mushrooms and may seek them out to alleviate the winter boredom. Andrew Hayes Retired Pharmaceutical Journal deputy editor claimed that reindeer deliberately seek out magic mushrooms: ‘They have a desire to experience altered states of consciousness,’ and search for them to ‘escape the monotony of dreary long winters’. He further claimed the herdsmen drink reindeer urine to benefit from the effects themselves *4)

This has resulted in a custom among the Sami reindeer herders to feed their animals with fly agaric and than collecting and drinking their urine to produce a “high” similar to that of LSD.

Watch a BBC Video about reindeer and the magic mushroom Fly agaric.

The hooves of Reindeer are large and sharp thus enabling them to travel over long distances and over terrain covered by ice and snow, the broad hooves acting rather like snow shoes which also help to propel the animal as he swims, it may surprise you to learn that they are very good swimmers. The hooves of reindeer adapt to accommodate the change in season; in summer when their grazing ground becomes soft and wet their hooves take on a sponge like appearance, this results in extra traction which enables them to cover a larger area of grazing ground more quickly and efficiently. During the winter season the hoof pads shrink, the contraction and tightening exposes the outer rim which enables them to cut into the snow helping them to remain firm on the slippery surface.

Reindeer are excellent runners and can reach speeds of fifty miles per hour when in a state of stress, during normal conditions and speeds reindeer may cover thirty miles a day. Reindeer are the prey of wolves and coyote, bears may prey on new born calves because they cannot run as fast.

The senses of hearing and sight are not well developed in reindeer however to compensate the sense of smell in reindeer is extremely keen and heavily relied upon to find food and avoid danger.

Reindeer make a variety of vocalisations including snorting when alarmed, a bawl and guttural grunts. Rutting males make a grunting roar to intimidate rivals and have large pouches of skin under their throats which increase the volume.

During the wintertime reindeer eat snow or lick frozen water, this is of course most likely a necessity as with the extremity of temperatures flowing water is unlikely to be readily available.

Reindeer live for ten to fifteen years of age.

Source: thinkdifferentlyaboutsheep. (2018). Reindeer: General Information [blog post]. Retrieved from