Home > Columns > Caribou and Reindeer


NatureSmart Column

Caribou and Reindeer

Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

January 10, 2021

Tis the season of the Reindeer. After all, it’s hard to not notice them at this time of year. They make appearances in holiday movies, or on holiday greeting cards, and sometimes they are seen in Christmas tree lots as the featured animal. They appear on stage in plays or re-enactments and the list goes on and on. Not to mention, for an eternity, Reindeer have powered Santa’s sleigh. You might even say, without Reindeer we might not have Christmas.

But what do you really know about Reindeer? For example, did you know that Reindeer and Caribou are the same animal? Scientifically speaking, they are both Rangifer tarandus. This is a classic example of one animal having different common names in different parts of the world. They are called Reindeer in northern Europe and Asia and they are called Caribou in North America and Greenland. But they are still the same animal. Not to confuses things more, but North American Moose (Alces alces) are called Elk in most of Europe. See what I mean? The use of common names can be very confusing.

For generations, Reindeer have been tended by humans in northern Europe and Eurasia. It is estimated that they were domesticated about 2,00 to 5,000 years ago. The domesticated Reindeer can look and act very different from their wild brethren. Domestic Reindeer have short legs, and they don’t migrate hundreds of miles and their antlers are much smaller. Caribou have long legs, migrate across mountain ranges for hundreds of miles and the males have enormous antlers. So, in short, the difference between Reindeer and Caribou is Reindeer are domesticated and Caribou are wild.  

Caribou are a member of the deer family. They are considered circumpolar which means they are found in the northern boreal and arctic regions around the entire world. They have adapted well to cold wintery conditions and to survive the harshest conditions. They have large and wide hooves that are good for walking in snow. They also use their hooves to dig through ice packed snow to find plants and lichen on the tundra below the snow.

Their fur is very thick, and their long hollow hairs help trap air close to the body to keep them warm. In addition, their fur acts like a life jacket to keep them afloat when swimming. Both male and female Caribou have antlers. The male’s antlers can be huge and are considered the largest of any deer species in proportion to their body size. Another amazing fact about Caribou, they can see Ultraviolet (UV) light, which is invisible to humans. It has been well documented that birds and insects can see UV light, but mammals are a very different thing. It turns out that Caribou are one of the few mammals on the earth that can perceive UV light. Currently, only a couple species of rodents and a few species of bat are known to see UV light.

It is unknown why Caribou can see Ultraviolet light. But some preliminary experiments show that Lichen, a low growing plant-like organism, and the main food source for Caribou during winter, absorbs UV light making them look dark against the bright snow. Perhaps this makes it easier to find food. But can it be so simple? Wouldn’t anything that is not snow stand out on the tundra? Do they need help finding food?

Some have suggested that since mammal urine, such as wolves, reflects UV light, the Caribou could use this info to help them avoid predators. This would give the Caribou some warning of predators in the area, but this is just speculation. There can always predators in the area!

 There are still many mysteries surrounding this animal no matter if you call them Caribou or Reindeer, especially when it comes to Reindeer flying and powering Santa’s Sleigh around the world. Happy Holidays to you and yours.

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study and capture images of wildlife. He can be followed on www.facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com.

The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

Recent Columns
Most RecentAbout Stan's Columns

Bison and Wolf

The bison turned quickly, ready to charge. The two feet of snow didn’t slow its powerful hooves but rather kicked up a rooster-tail of shinny ice crystals into the cold winter air, highlighting the Bison’s efforts. What was surprising was how quickly the pack of wolves turned around...

Dog eat Dog World

There is no question about it! It is a dog-eat-dog world out there, and now I have proof. Recently on a trip to film wolves in Yellowstone National Park, I was reminded of this old saying. The week before I arrived an associate of mine witnessed a coyote chasing a Red Fox through the deep snow....

Northern Shrike

            I love rule breakers. You know, the critters in nature that don’t follow the rules we people lay out for them. A good example of this is the Opossum. How crazy is it for a mammal to have their babies borne after just 14...

Snow Flakes

A light and gentle snow started falling the other day while I was out in the woods. Quickly the tiny flakes started to build a uniform blanket covering the ground. It was a beautiful scene. It was at this point that I started to notice the induvial snowflakes that were sticking to my dark green...

Wildlife Photography Tours

Each year, during June and July, Stan Tekiela offers two world-class wildlife photography tours. Here's your chance to learn some tricks of the trade from a top professional.

» More Info

View all of the titles in the
NatureSmart Bookstore

Check out Stan's latest photos at
NatureSmart Wildlife Images

Do you have any interesting wildlife in your backyard? Any nesting birds, deer, turkeys, reptiles, amphibians, or other unique wildlife? Or maybe a fox or coyote den?

If so, contact Stan at stan@naturesmart.com with your backyard wildlife. If he can get a good photo of the subject, he will send you a print of the photo to hang on your wall.

» More Info

Order Prints and posters of Stan's photos at
» Prints & Posters

Hear Stan on radio stations all across the Midwest.
» More Info