Reindeer (caribou)


The reindeer is a large mammal living in northern Europe, Asia, and North America. These animals, most commonly known for pulling Santa’s sleigh, are usually brown. Different subspecies are different colors, ranging from the dark brown shown above to pure white!

Although most people think of them as different animals, the reindeer and the caribou are the same species. In North America they are normally called caribou, and in Europe and Asia they are more frequently called reindeer.

Thus, if anyone hears someone else talking about the animal they call a reindeer and calling it a caribou, they assume it is a different animal. If this happens enough, soon people will think they are two different animals!

Reindeer are the only species of deer in which both the males and females have antlers. All other species, only the males have antlers. Female reindeer do have much smaller and simpler antlers than the males, though.

Another difference between these deer and most others is that the young in this species do not have spots on their coat. Most deer have this because it helps them blend in better with the speckled shadows made by trees. Reindeer do not live in a habitat with many trees, so these spots would not benefit them as much.


Male caribou are much larger than females, but I don’t have any specifics on the size for each. From its nose to the base of its tail, an adult is between 48 and 87 inches (122-221 cm) long. This is about four to seven feet. At the shoulder, they can stand from 34 to 55 inches (87-140 cm) high, which is about three to four-and-a-half feet.

As their size ranges a lot, the weight of reindeer also has a large span. Females are usually between 121 and 308 pounds (55-140 kg), while the males are between 143 and 529 pounds (65-240 kg). Their weight fluctuates with the time of year and the availability of food.

Males, as well as being larger than the females, also have larger antlers. The females can have antlers from 9 to 20 inches (23-50 cm) long each, while males have ones between 21 and 51 inches (52-130 cm)!


Reindeer are herbivores, and their favorite food grass. During the summer there are many plants which these animals can eat. In addition to grass, they consume the leaves of willows and birches, as well as mushrooms and lichen. In the winter, most of the plants have gone dormant, so they rely more on lichen and hardy grass.

In zoos, caribou are usually fed hay and various grasses. The average adult eats between 9 and 18 pounds (4-8 kg) of vegetation daily!

Habitat and range

The map below shows the range of reindeer in Asia and Europe in red, and the range of caribou in North America in green. As you can see, they live in the far north in these continents, and they only live in Canada, Greenland, and Alaska in North America. They live in a few different countries in Europe and Asia, but they do not go very far south.

Reindeer live in the frigid environments of the sub-Arctic tundra and the boreal forests. These areas are frequently covered in snow, and ice. I sure am glad I don’t have to live outside in an area like that!

Status and threats

The IUCN Redlist has classified the reindeer as Least Concern. Because they are so large, these animals have only a few natural predators. Bears, namely the grizzly and black bears, are able to take down reindeer by themselves. Wolves are also predators, but they can’t normally take down the adults individually. Juvenile caribou are vulnerable to wolves that hunt by themselves, and wolves hunting in packs can take down adults. Cougars are also known to be reindeer predators.

Another threat is parasites. One parasite in particular which is deadly to reindeer, is carried by white-tailed deer. The white-tailed deer is immune to this parasite, but if one gets in a reindeer, it can cause big problems.

Reindeer are hunted for their fur, meat, and antlers, but not enough to cause them major difficulties. There are an estimated 5 million of these mammals in the wild and captivity today. It is estimated that about 900,000 of these live in the wild in Alaska.

Migration and life

During cold, harsh winters, reindeer migrate south to find more food. Depending on how far north they live during the summer, they can travel as far as 1,000 miles (1,600 km)! While migrating, they form herds that are as small as 10 individuals and as large as a few hundred. After migrating back north in the spring, they form large herds of up to half a million reindeer!

In the spring, the adults start to grow their antlers. At first, they are covered by a thin layer of skin and fur, called velvet. Once the antlers have fully grown and hardened, the skin dries; and the reindeer rub it off, revealing the hard, bony antlers beneath. The antlers only last one season. Mating males shed their antlers right after the breeding season, but females and younger males may keep them until the next spring when they are ready to grow their next pair.

Reproduction and young

During the fall, male caribou compete for the right to mate with a group of 5-15 females. They use their antlers in displays, threats, and even fights. These fights can be extremely dangerous. Some of them result in serious injuries or even death.

Mating occurs mostly in October, and the females carry the young throughout their whole migration. They normally give birth in May or June, about 225-230 days after mating! Each female usually gives birth to a single juvenile reindeer, though twins occur occasionally.

In just one hour, the young caribou is able to follow its mother around, and by the next day, it will be able to outrun a human! They are almost always weaned by the first week of July, and by the time they are 45 days old, they eat plants almost exclusively.

The young are ready to mate between the ages of 1.5 and 2.5 years. Females typically live longer than the males, up to 15 years instead of 10. Most reindeer only live to be about 5 years old.

Don’t forget to scroll down and comment your guess about what the next animal is!


Photo credits:

  • Reindeer – Alexander Buisse
  • Reindeer range – Public Domain
  • Mystery animal – Duncan
%d bloggers like this: