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Written by: Nancy Moncrief
Monday December 8, 2014

Note: The text below is adapted from an article that first appeared in The Virginia Explorer magazine. Its co-author is Sandra Olsen, who was VMNH Curator of Archaeology at the time. 

December is a month when we hear a lot about “Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer” and the other members of Santa’s team.  As it turns out, several characteristics of real-life reindeer, including speed, endurance, and adaptations to cold, may account for their fictional choice as old St. Nick’s primary means of transportation.

Prior to the 19th Century, St. Nicholas was depicted riding a horse, donkey, or sky chariot pulled by horses.  The Scandinavians were apparently the first to place our important Christmas symbol in a reindeer-drawn sleigh.  This mode of transport was most appropriate, because reindeer can pull a sleigh at a rate of 12 to 15 miles per hour for many hours at a time.  With the popularization of Clement Moore’s immortal poem of 1823, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (also known as “Twas the Night before Christmas”), the symbol of Santa in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer became a tradition.

Domesticated caribou or reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) Tanya Dewey (photographer; copyright holder; identification), Animal Diversity Web

Reindeer, as well as moose, elk, and white-tailed deer, are members of the mammalian family Cervidae.  Antlers are the most distinctive feature of reindeer and other cervids.  Reindeer are the only species in which both females and males possess antlers.  Their antlers grow at a phenomenal rate (as fast as three quarters of an inch per day !), and in males, they can reach a length of four and a half feet in just 3 months.

The scientific name Rangifer tarandus refers to the animals known as “reindeer” in Europe and as “caribou” in North America.  This species historically occurred throughout northern Europe, Siberia, Greenland, the northern mainland of North America, and the islands of the Canadian arctic.  Reindeer are adapted to their cold environment in many ways.  First, their fur provides better insulation than that of any other deer.  Second, their circulatory system and cold-resistant fat in their legs allow their leg temperature to fall well below that of their body temperature without loss of mobility.  Third, their hooves are adapted to the cold climate by having thick hair around them, by being broad and splayed to walk on snow, and by being sharp-edged enough to dig through ice to find food.  Lastly, their metabolic rate and digestive system are well-suited to the decline in high quality food resources in the winter.  These animals have an extremely eclectic diet; they consume a wide range of plants and ground cover, including willow buds and leaves, grass, herbaceous plants, fungi, and even lichens.

 Detail of reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) front feet Tanya Dewey (photographer; copyright holder; identification), Animal Diversity Web

Reindeer and caribou have been used by humans as a major food source for as much as 100,000 years.  While Laplanders and various Siberian tribes have successfully domesticated reindeer, the North American caribou hunters have never found it necessary.  In his 1980 book Hunters, Pastoralists and Ranchers: Reindeer Economies and Their Transformations, anthropologist Thomas Ingold  writes: “Perhaps no single species has been exploited by man in such a diversity of ways, without undergoing any significant change of form, or being removed from its natural zone of distribution.  Apart from constituting the prey of hunters and the living wealth of pastoralists and ranchers, reindeer have been driven like dogs, ridden like horses, milked like cattle and tamed as decoys for the hunting of their wild counterparts.”

 Sami family in Lapland, with a sled, reindeer and a dog.  Taken circa 1930 at Jukkasjärvi, Lappland, Sweden.  Swedish Natural Heritage Board

One amazing fact about reindeer is their ability to stay in constant motion.  Like so many plant-eating large mammals, reindeer need to keep on the move in order to avoid depletion of their feeding grounds.  In spite of their sometimes clumsy appearance, reindeer are capable of impressive speed and endurance.  Running reindeer can reach speeds of 50 miles per hour, and can trot for several days at a steady rate of 25 miles per hour over terrain that is virtually impassable to humans.  These are truly extraordinary animals – it’s no wonder they were chosen to pull Santa’s sleigh!

Tags: Biology, Dr. Nancy Moncrief, Mammal of the Month, Mammals, Research and Collections