Monday, December 24, 2012

Are reindeer real?

Caribou (or reindeer) crossing sign in
Kenai, Alaska - Summer 2012
Yes! Reindeer ARE real creatures. They are not mythical, made-up holiday creatures…but real animals. I don’t know about the flying or the blinking noses, those may belong to a secret subspecies!

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) are one in the same as caribou. I’ve heard that the term “reindeer” refers to the domesticated version of the species, while caribou refers to the wild ones.

This past summer (2012), I was very fortunate to spend 3 months living on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. I scored a sweet seasonal technician position with the USFWS monitoring movements of spawning Chinook (King) salmon. If you’re interested in any of those pictures and tales, check out my Alaska blog entries here.

While I was driving from here to there on daily errands up in the 49th state, I would occasionally get to see caribou milling around on this flood plain, referred to as “The Flats”. It was at the mouth of the mighty Kenai River, and when a storm surge happened to occur, or an especially high tide, these lowlands could absorb much of the excess water. In the drier parts of the year though, there was a lush grass growing and it was wide open. This allowed for good grazing and the ability to watch for predators, like grizzly bears.

A male caribou on the Kenai Flats, Kenai, Alaska - Summer 2012
An interesting fact about caribou: both males AND females carry antlers.

Let me back up. Antlers are shed every year. Horns are permanent. Antlers are a secondary sexual characteristic, that often shows on caribou. An example of a primary sexual characteristic would be internal/external sexual anatomy which dictates the sex of the organism.

White-tailed deer have been known, though less frequently, to show antlers on the does. Wild turkey hens can sometimes have a beard. I don’t know what this means for their reproductive abilities, but if the females are exhibiting these secondary traits, they probably have more testosterone in them than a normal female. They likely can’t viably reproduce, but I’d wager with caribou it’s not quite the same situation.

Caribou are the only antler-ed animal in North America that have antlers on males and females. The picture above is of a male caribou, which sports the more extravagant set of antlers. The picture below is of a pair of females, sporting a much less impressive antlers.

Female caribous in Denali National Park & Preserve, July 2012
A nice big male caribou in
Denali National Park & Preserve,
July 2012
Can I take a moment to share the definitions of antlers vs. horns?

-Characteristic of the family Cervidae: deer, moose, elk, caribou
-Often present only in males (with the exception of caribou)
-Grown annually, shed annually, temporary

-Characteristic of the family Bovidae: cows, sheep, goats, antelope, musk oxen
-Present in both males and often the females
-Continuously growing, never shed, permanent

Anyway, there is a bunch of caribou and reindeer information for you! I wish everyone a Merry Christmas, or Happy [whatever] Holidays!

Hopefully I can share some nice IR camera trap pictures with you soon.

That’s a whole story in itself!


  1. Lovely photos Alyssa, and so good to see Rudolph's family on Christmas Day. Are they protected species in Alaska? You truly did have a magical time at Kenai.Enjoy your holiday break, Season's Greetings with fondest wishes for another great year for you in 2013. From Jean.

    1. Happy Holidays Jean!!! I bet you're about through with them back there in NZ. Caribou are protected, but they can be hunted at certain times of the year.

  2. Alyssa,
    do you know when the deer start losing their antlers up by you? In my parks, they've got about a week left. I'm just curious if you've started getting any pictures of white-tail bucks without them yet, as compared to in the south, with climate and terrain differences.

    1. Brian- Believe it or not, I haven't gotten pictures of a buck....since probably this time last year. After the spring I was in Alaska (no WTD), then I just guess I'm not targeting deer. I did get a fawn and does in the fall once, but no bucks. I have no idea what the deer are doing with their antlers up in these parts right now. Although, I follow Cuddeback on FaceBook and someone submitted a picture of a deer with one antler, although I don't know where it's from. If you follow Backyard Beasts, he usually does an antler related blog, or TrailBlazer.


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