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Wild Things: Reindeer and Caribou

You don't have to wait until Santa lands on your roof to see reindeer. However, if you want to see flying reindeer, you'll have to wait until December 24th. In North America we call these animals caribou. Europe, Asia and Santa call them reindeer. They're pretty much the same animal, except reindeer are smaller than caribou.

Reindeer were domesticated in northern Eurasia about 2000 years ago. They are herded today (much like horses) by lots of Arctic people in Europe, Asia and Russia. Some of these people are the Sami in Scandinavia and the Nenets and Chukchi in Russia. Reindeer are important to herders. They rely on the animals for almost everything including food, clothing and shelter. Some of them even have reindeer as pets. Reindeer were brought to Alaska and Canada several years ago but that didn't work out too well. Caribou are mostly hunted in these areas instead of herded.

Both reindeer and caribou have large hooves that spread out when they walk so the can easily tromp through the snow and soft tundra. Their hooves also work as paddles when they swim. Males and females grow antlers - the only members of the deer family where both genders grow antlers. Male caribou bull antlers can grow about four feet wide! A female reindeer's antlers are much smaller.

Did you know that reindeer (and caribou) are excellent swimmers? It's true! They have really cool hair that traps air so they have amazing insulation. Those hairs also keep them from sinking in water. They have no problem getting across wide rivers and even the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean.

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