“Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer, had a very shiny nose. And if you ever saw him, you would even say it glows.”
— Johnny Marks
An article ago, we started a journey to the Arctic to meet Santa’s very dear reindeer. The moment we said hello, they immediately started telling us many things about themselves. We learned about their relationship with deer, how they made it to the Arctic, and how they survived that freezing cold.
We also discussed a few facts about their many subspecies and the differences between them, and the story of their fantastic antlers.
In this article, we are going on with this journey to learn more incredible things about those holiday-related animals. So let’s get started.
1. Reindeer have short tails and red noses
Apart from everything we mentioned, reindeer have short tails measuring only 12 cm on average. This is a common thing between reindeer and most other deer species. Undoubtedly, it evolved this way to serve a certain purpose in their survival in their harsh habitat.
Then what is with the red noses?
Well, a few subspecies that live in the coldest habitat do have red, sometimes glowy noses. Besides making them look cute, these red noses are there for a reason.
Reindeer have so many blood vessels in their noses, more than what is found in many other animals as well as humans. Those many, many blood vessels intensify the animal’s sense of smell So it can find food a little more easily.
Another reason why there are so many blood vessels in the nose is to help the reindeer regulate its body temperature. If it gets hot, the body automatically increases the blood flow and pushes it toward these blood vessels to help release the heat. Therefore, the nose turns red.
That said, the nose does not turn strawberry red. In fact, this red is barely noticeable. Sometimes, it can only be seen using thermal cameras—these are special devices that use infrared radiation to create an image.
2. They speak with their knees
The knees as well are exceptionally unique. They have a particular structure that makes them click when the reindeer walks. Yes, that is correct, a clicking sound. The bigger the reindeer, the louder the knee click is.
Scientists believe that reindeer use their knee-clicking sounds to speak to one another. The clicks are so loud that they can be heard from a few hundred metres. This allows reindeer of the same herd to locate and communicate with each other.
The frequency and nature of the clicks can provide clear messages to other herd members. For example, if the clicks are calm and the reindeer are moving relaxingly, that means the area is peaceful, and all the animals are safe. When the clicks become more frequent, and the reindeer seem to be speeding up, this tells other individuals there is some kind of threat.
3. They marry in winter and care for their babies in summer
The reindeer mating season typically starts in September and ends in early May. At the time, proposing males fight one another using their antlers to prove to the female they are worthy of her trust and able to make her happy. The stronger and the heavier of the two wins the fight and gets access to the female. He also becomes more dominant and moves up a rank in the social hierarchy of the reindeer community.
Strong males can mate with several females in the same season. Sometimes, a male can have up to 20 wives.
So how do males fight with their antlers? While kangaroos do boxing, lions punch and slap, and donkeys kick, reindeer lock and push. They lower their heads, direct their antlers toward their opponent and lock them into theirs. Then each individual pushes in the opposite direction.
Whoever can push harder to the point of knocking the other down or at least scare him enough to run away wins.
Once females become pregnant, they start looking for a safe place for their soon-to-be calves. They go as far as to travel to remote, isolated, sheltered areas that are safe from predators.
Females stay pregnant for six months. In the early summer, they give birth to a single calf weighing six kg. Calves are as developed as to stand and walk only a couple of hours after birth. They can even run soon after.
Calves nurse initially for a month and a half. Since their mother’s milk is highly nutritious, they grow rapidly. Then, they start grazing on their own while still nursing. When they reach six months old, they stop nursing altogether and depend completely on solid food.
Calves survive and mature as long as the food is good and weather conditions are bearable. This typically happens in a three or four-year time. As we mentioned earlier, males need to compete for females, so they must wait until their antlers are long and robust enough to help them get the access they need to breed.
Males usually take between six and seven years to develop full-length antlers and therefore are able to breed. Conversely, females can start breeding at one or two years old.
4. They either migrate or stay where they are
So as you may recall from the previous article, reindeer live in the Arctic region around the north pole. It is also called the tundra and is unbelievably cold. The tundra is a big, flat land with no trees at all. It is characterized by icy surface soil and frozen subsoil. That is why reindeer use their antlers to plough the soil and find vegetation buried underneath.
Some species also live in the subarctic region, which is located to the south of the tundra. It is less cold than the tundra, of course, but it is still super cold. This area is mostly forests and mountains, where vegetation seems to be more abundant.
In winter, vegetation becomes scarce in the tundra, so the reindeer residing there leave their homes to look for food. They typically travel for long distances, going as far from home as 5,000 km. Conversely, the subspecies in the subarctic regions either migrate for short distances or within the area they already live in.
That said, other reindeer subspecies are so happy with what they have got at home and never go anywhere.
Migration happens twice a year, typically in autumn and then in the following spring. Reindeer get together and form large groups that travel for as long distances. They walk, run, and even swim if they have to.
When they finally arrive at their destination, reindeer set up their tents and stay there for the season foraging.
Once the sky gets clear and the air becomes a little warm, the Arctic reindeer know that it is time to go back home, to the tundra, which by this time is abundant with vegetation. So they get together once again, but this time they form a mega-group, sometimes including up to 500,000 individuals, and head back up.
Reindeer spend spring and summer in the tundra. When trees start shedding their leaves, the autumn migration ritual begins again. The leader shouts at the group to start their engine and walk directly toward the forests.
5. They are vegetarians, but they eat bones too
Like many hooved animals, reindeer are herbivores. They mainly depend on plants to eat and thrive. This happens either by grazing when the reindeer lower their heads to eat grass or by browsing when they lift their heads up to get the leaves on tree branches.
In winter, reindeer primarily feed on lichen. This organism looks like a plant but is not a plant. It has tiny leaves and branches and often grows on trees or the ground.
Lichen is high in carbohydrates which provide reindeer with the energy they need to survive through winter. Around this time, calves are already old enough to eat solid food, so they also eat lichen with their mothers.
In summer, as their habitat changes, the reindeer’s diet also changes. So instead of lichen, they feed on grass, shrub leaves, willow, mushrooms and some flowering plants called sedges.
Besides those food types, reindeer also consume bones. Such a behaviour is known as osteophagy, which is common among many other animals. For reindeer, they were found to eat the shed antlers of other individuals. A reindeer may attack another to eat its antlers on some bizarre occasions.
Does the eating of bones sound savage? Well, not really, for reindeer do that for a good reason.
The plants and lichens that reindeer eat have very low calcium and phosphorus levels. These two elements are very critical for the physical well-being of the reindeer. Without them, the reindeer will face severe problems in their metabolism, reproduction, bone growth, and other physiological and psychological issues.
Miraculously, reindeer are aware of their lack of these elements and their need to supplement their food with things that are abundant in calcium and phosphorus, in other words, bones. This is a survival behaviour reindeer do to spare themselves the severe side effects they may face if they do not eat bones.
Is that not fantastic? It is something we humans lack. It is evident that our bodies signal us with hunger when they need food and thirst when they need water. But we can only know if we have lower levels of iron, calcium, or potassium if we run some tests or when we face the consequences. And even if we knew that, we would not decide by ourselves which foods have the elements we need.
6. They have a lot of enemies
Reindeer have large bodies and mighty antlers. Still, unless they are healthy and strong adults that can fight back and run faster, they will often fall victim to the many predators found in their habitat, especially if they are young or sick.
The thing is, reindeer are among the most unlucky animals when it comes to predation, as there are different predators for newborns, calves, yearlings, and adults.
Take, for example, the wolverines. These predators have nothing to do with wolves but instead look like otters, although they are also not otters. They have a body length of 65 to 113 cm and a height of 45 cm at the shoulders. But despite their relatively small size, they are very muscular and have the intense physical strength that allows them to kill large prey.
Regarding reindeer, wolverines typically attack newborns, their mothers, and sick adults, whether they are males or females.
Golden eagles attack calves. Polar and brown bears prey on sick and weak adult reindeer as well as calves.
In this video, an adult reindeer is taking a swim on a normal day when he suddenly realises that someone is following him. He turns his head to find a snow-white furred and excited polar bear swimming after him. The reindeer pathetically tries to swim as fast as he can. However, it is a polar bear after all. He is a perfect swimmer by nature. It does not take the polar bear that long to reach the panicking reindeer, kill it, and patiently pull it out of the water to start its tasty meal.
Wolves are the most dangerous enemy to the reindeer and the most feared one as well, and there are a few reasons for that.
If you remember from our old story, wolves hunt in packs of four to eight individuals. Besides their excellent hunting skills, cooperation and high speed, the grey wolves were found to prey on healthy adult reindeer successfully. They are as persistent and dedicated as to follow a herd of reindeer, whatever they go, throughout the entire year.
Here we get to the end of our journey where we went to the Arctic to learn about reindeer, Santa’s favourite sleigh pullers.
In this article, we explored six other areas of the reindeer’s existence. We talked about their short tails and red noses and explained why they have them this way. We also learned how reindeer use their clicking knees to communicate with one another.
Then we moved to their breeding behaviours, how males fight to get access to females, pregnancy, and who usually takes care of the calves until they become independent.
After that, we moved to talk about their migration and learned why some reindeer subspecies travel twice a year and why others do not. Then we moved to their diet and learned about the varieties of food they consume all year long.
Finally we finished off by learning some information about the reindeer predators.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article as much as we love writing it for you. Now that we are done with our journey to the Arctic region, you can read more about fantastic animals here.
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