Caribou & Reindeer
Rangifer tarandus

Reindeer and Caribou look different, but they probably are the same species. Caribou are large, wild, elk-like animals which can be found above the tree-line in arctic North America and Greenland. Because they can live on lichens in the winter they are very well adapted for the harsh arctic tundra where they migrate great distances each year. Caribou cows and bulls both grow distinctive antlers and bull antlers can reach 4 feet in width! A Caribou calf can run within 90 minutes of its birth. It must do this to keep up with the migrating herds.

Reindeer are slightly smaller and were domesticated in northern Eurasia about 2000 years ago.  Today, they are herded by many Arctic peoples in Europe and Asia including the Sami in Scandinavia and the Nenets, Chukchi and others in Russia. These  peoples depend on the reindeer for almost everything in their economy including food, clothing and shelter. Some Nenets even keep reindeer for pets!  Reindeer were introduced into Alaska and Canada last century, but most attempts failed.  Native peoples in these countries still prefer to hunt caribou rather than herd reindeer.

Reindeer and caribou have unique hairs which trap air providing them with excellent insulation. These hairs also help keep them buoyant in the water. They are very strong swimmers and can move across wide rushing rivers and even the frozen ice of the Arctic Ocean!


Labrador "Nulliak" Caribou
Photo © Stephen Loring


Caribou Swimming
Photo © Corel

19th Century Naturalist
Edward Nelson Recounts:

"Strong fences are sometimes built across the lower end of a rocky gorge which opens into a valley above, and then a drive is made when a herd wanders into the valley.  In this way several hundred are known to have been taken at once.  In a case of this kind, every deer (caribou) that is enclosed is killed, although only a fraction of the number can be utilized.  They are also snared by strong rawhide nooses which are set among clumps of bushes frequented by them so that their antlers become entangled while browsing, and they are held until the hunter comes.

About the headwaters of the Yukon the Indians build a wide V-shaped fence with a pound or enclosure at the small end into which they make successful drives whenever the deer are sufficiently numerous. Reindeer flesh is fine grained and slightly dry, but better than ordinary deer meat.

So far as I could learn, none of these animals are, or ever have been, domesticated on the American side of Bering Straits.  On the Asiatic side of the straits, up to the very water-line, the people estimate the wealth of themselves or neighbors by the size of their reindeer herd, and the people who from lack of these are forced to live in villages on the coast and to subsist on the products of the sea, are looked upon as an inferior class of but little consequence."


Photo © Douglas Siegel-Causey


Nenets reindeer sled
Photo © William Fitzhugh

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