1. Reindeer have a long unique history
Reindeer have a long history in culture and myth. In Europe’s Reindeer Age (16,000 years ago) reindeer were abundant. Primitive humans relied on them for their skins to keep warm, meat to sustain the winter, and bones to create tools. The term “Reindeer” comes from the Old Norse word “hreinin”, which means “horned animal.” For the Sami, the indigenous people of Lapland, reindeer are important animals both in their culture and for sustenance. They have roughly 400 words for the food, tools and other products gained through reindeer farming. Nowadays the largest reindeer herd in the world lives in Russia and counts roughly 700,000 animals.
2. Horns for everyone
Reindeer are the only deer species in which both male and female reindeer have antlers. Female reindeer shed theirs after they gave birth to their young in the spring. They keep their antlers throughout the winter to ensure that they can compete for food while pregnant. Male reindeer on the other hand shed their antlers each winter. This means, reindeer are the only mammals that grow new sets of antlers annually. The females are in average significantly smaller than the males. Moreover, male reindeer roar much louder than females, especially during rutting season. When bellowing is necessary, they inflate a small pouch just under the skin of their throats.
3. Made for the rough climate
Since life in the tundra is hard, evolution built reindeer to survive in snow and cold. Their bodies react to changes in temperatures in a very special way. When temperature drops, they have the incredible ability to lower the temperature in their legs to an almost freezing level to keep their core body heat even. Their hooves even adapt to different seasons. In the summer, when the ground is wet, their foot pads are softened, providing them with extra traction. In the winter, though, the pads tighten, revealing the rim of their hooves, which is used to provide traction in the slippery snow and ice. In addition, the knees of some subspecies make a clicking noise while walking so members of the herd can hear one another and stay together in blizzard conditions. Their noses are specially adapted to warm the air they breathe before it enters their lungs and to condense water in the air, which they then use to keep their mucous membranes moist. For winter grazing they grow their facial hair long enough to cover their mouths, protecting their muzzles from the snow. The reindeer’s fur coat not only traps air to keep the body insulated, it also acts as a flotation device when it enters the water.
4. Outstanding sense of smell
Reindeer eat certain types of lichen that grow in sub-arctic climates. These plant materials help to keep their blood warm so that they can survive the icy winters. Reindeer have a strong sense of smell, and it’s that sense of smell that helps them sniff out lichen easily, even through snow that is 60 centimeters deep. In fact, due to harsh environment, they don’t have a lot of choices when it comes to grazing. Thus, they often live on lichen, especially Cladonia rangiferina, commonly known as reindeer moss.
5. Born to run
Reindeer are strong, energy-efficient running machines. A new born calf can outrun a man, and reindeer in general are more efficient than most other land mammals. At their top speed they run more than 80 km/h and swim at 10 km/h. Like many herd animals, the calves learn to walk fast—within only 90 minutes of being born, a baby reindeer can already run. The calves are fully weaned by 6 months, and their first set of antlers makes an appearance around their second birthday. Reindeer reach maturity at 4 to 6 years of age and can become up to 20 years.
6. Incredible vision
Researchers at University College London discovered reindeer are the only mammals that can see ultraviolet light. While humans are only able to see wavelengths up to around 400 nm, reindeer’s vision includes information up to 320 nm. This enhanced vision helps the reindeer to see things in the glowing white of the Arctic that they would otherwise miss. Things like white fur and urine are difficult, even impossible, for humans to see in the snow, but for reindeer, they show up in high contrast.
7. They used to live throughout Europe
While reindeer now live exclusively in the far North of the globe, when the earth was cooler and humans have had taken less of their habitat, their haunt was much larger. In fact, reindeer used to live all the way down in Spain during the Pleistocene area. Its habitat has shrunk considerably in the last few centuries, especially due to the warmer climate. Although IUCN does not list them as endangered, recent research suggests that changing climate and the resulting loss of suitable habitat could spell trouble for the species. Some reindeer populations are likely to become more and more isolated. Nowadays, only in Northern Europe the population of reindeer is kept stable through sustainable farming.
8. Chameleon eyes reflect the season
A research team revealed why reindeer eyes appear golden in summer and deep blue in winter. What actually changes colour is the tapetum lucidum (or “cat’s eye”) —a mirrored layer that sits behind the retina. In summer, it reflects a golden glow. However, in the fading light of winter, the tapetum undergoes a complex transformation what changes the type of light it can reflect – and thereby gives it a blue appearance.