Reindeer: What do they do the other 364 days of the year?

Dec 20, 2011

There's Dasher and Dancer, Prancer and Vixen; Comet and Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. We know these beloved critters, along with the bright red nose of their newest addition, Rudolph, make it possible for Santa to deliver toys to children all over the world every Christmas Eve, but what do reindeer do the other 364 days of the year?

Join Dr. Layne Adams as he answers readers' questions about reindeer, including what they eat, where they live, if they really do fly and whatever else you've ever wondered about the animal.

Submit your questions and opinions now!

Hello! I’m Dr. Layne Adams, research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, based in Alaska. I specialize in population biology and predator/prey relationships of Alaskan large mammals, but I’m also well known for my work on caribou (wild reindeer), wolves, muskoxen, and other species. 

For more than 30 years, I’ve been studying caribou. Currently, my research includes studies of population dynamics of caribou in Denali National Park and muskoxen in northwest Alaska.  

Please feel free to ask me any you like about reindeer, and I’ll do my best to answer!

I know the Lapps in northern Scandinavia herd reindeer. Do those reindeer differ from the ones who live in Alaska & northern Canada?

“Reindeer” and “caribou” are two common names for the same species (Rangifer tarandus), which occurs throughout the circumpolar North. So the reindeer in Scandinavia are the same animal as our caribou in Alaska.  

My family has always left out carrots for the reindeer on Christmas. Eve. Is this an appropriate treat, or is there something that will better meet their energy needs that particular night?

While it is possible that they could eat carrots, they usually like to eat lichen and shrubs, like willow, in the winter.  In the summer, they eat green grasses and shrubs and flowering plants. Try that instead!

What is a typical reindeer lifespan?

Female caribou can live up to about 20 years old! Males live about half that long. 

1.What are key differences between the male and female reindeer? 2. Is it true that only the female have antlers?

Both males and females have antlers! They are the only member of the deer family where both sexes have antlers. Males are about twice as big as females though!

What is the hardest part of tranquilizing a caribou? And a follow-up question: Am I right in assuming you prefer Caribou Coffee to Starbucks?

We tranquilize caribou by darting them from a helicopter! So it's rather a lot happening at once -- there are 3 parties involved -- the pilot, the gunner (the one with the dart rifle) in the helicopter and the animal itself.  The pilot and gunner have to work well together to make it work. 

And is their a special name for baby reindeer?

Caribou babies are called calves, and reindeer babies are called fawns.  In Denali National Park where I work, calves, when they are born, weigh only about 17 pounds. Adult males can get up to 600 pounds!

Seasons Greetings from a fellow UM alumnus. How has climate change affected the caribou population?

We know, from our studies, that weather may be the most important factor affecting the yearly cycles of large hoofed mammals (such as caribou, moose and muskox) and their predators. However, the longer-term effects of climate change are much more complex.  Unlike polar bears, which are highly dependent on sea ice that is declining due to warming temperatures, caribou are likely influenced by a wide variety of factors that will be affected by a warming climate, and some effects will be positive and some negative.  For example, with a warming climate, we expect the growing season to be longer and provide caribou with green, nutritious forage earlier and for a longer period of time for a positive effect.  However, we have done research that indicates that with increasing temperatures we can expect more fires on boreal forest winter ranges for caribou that will likely result in reduced availability of lichen, their primary winter forage that tends to not grow back for about 70-80 years after a fire.  The overall effect of a warming climate on Alaska’s caribou will be dependent on how these and many other climate-related effects interact and that is very difficult to predict.

We know venison is good eating. What does reindeer taste like?

My family eats a lot of caribou. Caribou are a mainstay of local subsistence in Bush Alaska, and a sought-after quarry for other Alaskan residents, as well as sport hunters from all over the world. On average, people harvest about 22,000 caribou a year in Alaska.

Is that because they fight?

Adults males fight in the fall for opportunities to breed. In doing that, they get injured and use a lot of their fat reserves they need to get through the winter. As a result, they die at a high rate. 

How tall are reindeer? How many are there in the wild?

They are about 4 feet high at the shoulder. In North America, there are just under 4 million caribou.

What was the most surprising reindeer fact you learned from your research?

The coolest thing about caribou to me is that they can make a living in a very severe environment -- they make it  through winters with temperatures down to seventy below zero! 

And are they gregarious animals?

Most commonly we think of the big migratory caribou herds that live in HUGE groups. For example, the Western Arctic Herd in Alaska currently numbers about 400,000 animals. However, caribou and reindeer also live in small populations that are very thinly scattered across the landscapes. In these herds, they are generally in groups of just a few animals. 

When I lived in Finland, I saw reindeer pulling small sleighs and seemed to be quite placid and domesticated. Are caribou also domesticated? I only think of them as migratory herds on TV.

Reindeer were domesticated a few thousand years ago in Europe and Asia. However, caribou in North America have never been domesticated.  While the main goal for domestic reindeer is providing meat and hide to local people, reindeer have been trained to pull sleds in Europe and Asia. There is a small domestic reindeer industry in Alaska and Canada, but those animals came from Eurasian reindeer. 

Where would be the best place and time of year to see wild reindeer in the US?

There are only a very small number of caribou in the lower 48; they are in northern Idaho and northeastern Washington. But here in Alaska, there are LOTS of caribou, and a good time to see them is in summer in Denali National Park or in the fall as they migrate across the few roads we have here in Alaska. 

So, how musky are muskox? Can you smell them before you see them?

They actually don't smell musky at all.

I happen to be currently reading stories of Arctic exploration, mostly involving expeditions mounted by the British in the early 19th century in efforts to find the Northwest Passage. Things did not go well for them, especially for the Franklin expedition. What can you tell us about attempting science in such forbidding climes? And have you ever been forced to eat your boots or your sled dogs?

We certainly do not suffer like the previous Polar explorers. We do have to work in very cold temperatures, down to about 20 below zero. During a couple of months of the winter it's too dark to do much in the way of field science.  Also, Alaska is HUGE. For example, I have to drive 5 hours from home to my study site in Denali National Park, and then we have to fly out up to a hundred miles to our study sites.

For more information, visit my Qs and As about caribou at 

Thank you for your interest in the subject and Happy Holidays!


In This Chat
Layne Adams
Dr. Layne Adams is a research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Alaska. He specializes in population biology and predator/prey relationships of Alaskan large mammals. He is well known for his work on caribou (wild reindeer), wolves, muskoxen, and other species. He has studied caribou in Alaska for more than 30 years. Dr. Adams serves on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature?s Species Survival Commission in the Wolf Specialist Group and is a member of the Arctic Institute of North America, The Wildlife Society and the American Society of Mammalogists. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, St Paul, in wildlife conservation. His current research includes studies of population dynamics of caribou in Denali National Park and muskoxen in northwest Alaska. His work is vital in providing timely and relevant information to address wildlife management issues in Alaska and northern North America.

The above photo is Dr. Layne Adams with a tranquilized caribou in Alaska. Credit, USGS.
Recent Chats
  • Next: