Species Spotlight: Reindeer

2 Reindeer grazing in the snow at the zoo

Reindeer are one of the most iconic Christmas animals. One of the first known mentions linking Reindeer to Christmas was in the 1823 poem by Clement C. Moore "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (also known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"). The poem reads:

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,

but a miniature sleigh,

and eight tiny rein-deer,

with a little old driver, so lively and quick,

I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,

And he whistled, and shouted, and call'd them by name:

"Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer, and Vixen!

"On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Dunder and Blixem!

"To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

"Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

 

Reindeer are found in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, northern Europe and northern Asia in tundra, mountains and woodland habitats. In summer months Reindeer eat grasses, herbs ferns and mosses. They have also been recorded as being opportunistic carnivores eating lemmings, birds eggs and some fish. During the winter they eat lichens and fungi which they find by sweeping snow and ice away with their antlers and hooves.

Given the harsh conditions they live in Reindeer are very well adapted to their environment.

  • Both male and female Reindeer grow antlers. Antlers are made of bone; unlike horns which are made of keratin and therefore antlers can be regularly shed. Male reindeer shed their antlers in November or December whereas females retain their antlers until spring time. Females can then use their antlers in winter to push through the snow to find food.
  • It has recently been discovered that Reindeer are sensitive to ultra violet light to cope with the long dark winters in the Arctic. Snow and ice reflect UV light whereas urine, predators and lichen absorb UV light.
  • Reindeer have special Nasoturbinal bones in their noses which aid to warm each inhaled breath on the way to the lungs and cool the exhaled breath, condensing the water vapour before it can be exhaled.
  • Reindeer have a thick fur coat made up of two layers of fur (a soft fine undercoat of insulating hairs and a long coarse outer layer to help protect from the rain and snow). The coat also traps air when in water which helps make the reindeer buoyant, aiding swimming. The thick winter coats are shed each spring and regrown each year for winter.
  • A reindeer’s hooves adapt according to the season. In the summer their footpads are sponge-like aiding grip on the wet and slippery tundra. In the winter their footpads shrink leaving an exposed sharp hoof rim which cuts into the snow and ice to provide secure footing and dig through the snow for food.
  • Every year wild reindeer can migrate up to 5000km. They migrate north in summer to longer days and more plants to graze on and in winter they migrate south to forested areas providing shelter from the harsh weather

 You can find out more about the Reindeer we have here at the zoo and all our other amazing animals on our animal A-Z pages.

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